INDIANAPOLIS - This season was just beginning when Duke guard Nolan Smith's mother, Monica, told him, "You guys work hard and do what you've got to do, and this year will take you on the path your dad went."
When the plane carrying Duke's team to the Final Four made its final approach a few days ago, Smith looked down and spotted mammoth Lucas Oil Stadium, and it all hit him. He was at the Final Four in the same city where his father, Derek Smith, helped lead Louisville to the 1980 NCAA title about 10 blocks away at Market Square Arena, which no longer exists.
"That's very exciting," Smith said Thursday. "I know he's looking down.''
Derek Smith died of a heart attack at the age of 34 while taking his family on a cruise in 1996 when Nolan was only 9 years old. If Smith could see his son today, he'd see the player who has become Duke's go-to guy, especially after the 6-2 junior scored a career-high 29 points in the South Regional final victory over Baylor. Smith was named MVP of the regional.
This isn't the most talented Duke team coach Mike Krzyzewski has had by a long shot, but it might be the toughest, which is the quality it will need the most against second-seeded West Virginia in the second semifinal matchup Saturday night. A pair of five seeds, Butler and Michigan State, will square off in the first game.
Like the Mountaineers (31-6), the Blue Devils (33-5) don't shoot very well, but both teams play tough defense and are tremendous at getting offensive rebounds to extend possessions and give themselves a chance to win.
They also have veteran players who have a knack for making big shots at critical times. In Duke's case, that most often means relying on the backcourt combination of Smith (17.4 points per game) and point guard Jon Scheyer (18.2). They were in the opposite roles last season, but Coach K switched them this season.
"Nolan's kind of like the unsung hero of our team," Krzyzewski said. "Two-thirds into last year, he was having a really good year as a point guard. I think it wore him out mentally. It wasn't the role he should be in."
The change has freed up Smith to become more of a scorer. As Krzyzewski said, he's the one Duke player who can create his own shot in tough situations.
Scheyer isn't your classic point guard, but Smith said his backcourt mate does a superb job of controlling tempo and slowing the game down for himself and Kyle Singler (17.6 points per game).
"He can handle the ball and run our team offensively instead of trying to be the description of what a point guard is," Krzyzewski said of Scheyer. "He just needs to be himself out there. He's a winner."
Now Duke has arrived in Indianapolis as the tournament's only surviving No. 1 seed, which makes the Blue Devils the favorite to win it all and cement a unique connection between Smith and his father forever.
It might never have happened had Smith transferred, as he considered doing two years ago when assistant coach Johnny Dawkins, a close friend of Smith's father, left for another job.
"When things get tough, don't run from them," Smith said of that fateful decision. "That's something my father taught me in the short time he was with me."