Duke gets defensive, moves on to Sweet 16

Nolan Smith scored 20 points and shut down Jerome Randle in Duke's win over California. Bob Donnan/US Presswire

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nolan Smith never slapped the floor.

But had the Duke guard chosen to go that route on Sunday, well even the most hardened Blue Devils haters might have cut him some slack. Smith's defensive effort against California star Jerome Randle set the tone for his team's incident-free, 68-53 second-round NCAA Tournament victory.

Randle was the Pac-10 player of the year, an explosive scorer because of his speed and nearly unlimited shooting range. Against Duke and Smith, though, he finished with just 12 points, including only one field goal after halftime.

Smith also had his way on the other end, scoring a game-high 20 points.

"Nolan, he just dominated that matchup," Blue Devils forward Lance Thomas said. "Randle had nothing for him. He took the initiative and picked him up from three-quarters of the court and let him know it was going to be a fight all game. And Nolan knocked him out."

Duke has been knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by the round of 16 in seven of the past eight years and in each of the past five seasons. Its hopes of going longer seem stronger this time, largely because of defense.

The Blue Devils allowed just 61.7 points per game in the regular season, its lowest total since 1950. First-round opponent Arkansas-Pine Bluff mustered just 44 points, while Cal -- which came in averaging 78 points per game -- was held to its lowest score since Feb. 28, 2008.

Defense is why Duke could get nothing from Jon Scheyer, miss 14 of its 17 3-point shots -- a harbinger of tournament death in the recent past -- and still win.

"I don't know if we'll go any further, but this is a better team because it can play total defense," Krzyzewski said. "I mean, someone will say in the past, they relied on the 3-point shot. Well, what else were we going to rely on?

"This team is better. It's not a great team, but it's an excellent defensive team."

That defense starts with Smith, who takes on the challenge of guarding the other team's main ball handler every night. His assignment on Sunday loomed as one of his more daunting tasks, and Randle scored seven points in the first 10 minutes, including a pair of layups.

"I got really upset with myself," Smith said.

From then on, though, Randle was the one feeling bad about things. Smith smacked the ball away as Randle tried to attempt a last-second shot before the half. Randle went just 1-for-5 in the second half while Smith wore him down on offense in what Krzyzewski called "a marvelous performance."

"I wanted to pick him up as early as I could," Smith said. "I've seen films where he'd come up and shoot from 30 feet while guys are backpedaling. Today I was just up in him. He had to look at me before he looked at the rim tonight."

Duke has always prided itself at guarding the perimeter, even if some of its guards were limited athletically. Now Krzyzewski has a ferocious on-ball defender in Smith and length with guys like Kyle Singler, Thomas and 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek, who had 14 points and 13 rebounds on Sunday. Even if they get beat off the dribble, the Blue Devils now have confidence that someone on the back line will swat away the shot or take a charge.

And that has the team thinking bigger things than the Sweet 16 this year.

"If we defend and rebound, I think we can beat anyone," Thomas said. "I don't care who we play. If we stick to our defensive game plan, we can take anyone out."