Kenny Smith would not utter the name of "that school in Durham," but on the eve of the NCAA Tournament he did give Duke a reasonable chance in the event and props to its retiring coach, Mike Krzyzewski.
"They’re still super-talented," Smith, a Turner analyst who grew up in Queens and attended North Carolina, Duke’s arch rival, told Newsday. "They still only have to win four games to get to a Final Four. That’s not an unusual feat."
Smith said Duke’s prospects should not be based on its blowout losses to North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s home finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium and its blowout loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament final.
"When you play conference games, people know your system because they played against you for 10 years, or played against you for five years, or for Coach K, decades. It doesn’t change much.
"You get an opportunity to read them and feel better than a school outside your conference. If I was that school in Durham, I wouldn’t be too worried about these losses, especially the loss to Carolina. You’re supposed to lose to us."
Duke, a No. 2 seed in the West Region, opens against Cal-State Fullerton in Greenville, South Carolina, on Friday.
Smith said that one of Krzyzewski’s greatest legacies is changing the basketball dynamic on Tobacco Road.
When Smith arrived in Chapel Hill in 1983, North Carolina State was the defending national champion, and the North Carolina players considered the Wolfpack their biggest rival.
N.C. State has not been to a Final Four since. In 1986, Duke reached its first of seven Final Fours in nine years.
"When I went to North Carolina, North Carolina State was our rival," Smith said. "Then he made [Duke-Carolina] into the biggest basketball rivalry in the history of the sport. It might be the best rivalry in sports now."
Smith believes there are an unusual number of No. 8 and 9 seeds that could make noise in the NCAAs, which usually involves upsetting a No. 1 seed in the second round.
Perhaps not coincidentally, North Carolina is a No. 8 seed, with Marquette as its first opponent and No. 1 seed Baylor looming next.
An NCAA run would help establish new coach and former Knick Hubert Davis, who is 24-9 in his first season since succeeding Roy Williams.
"I think he did that last week," Smith said of Davis’ 94-81 victory in Krzyzewski’s Cameron finale on March 5. "I mean, they’re at 20-whatever wins. He’s established that he’s going to get it done.
"With all the pageantry around, going to Durham, to get the team focused to come in there and play that well, to me that said more than anything else. So we’re happy with him. We’re happy with what’s going on, and he’s going to be there as long as he wants."