No such thing as easy road for Duke

DURHAM, N.C. -- Just about everybody figures Duke has the easiest Final Four path of any of the four No. 1 seeds.

Well, everybody but the Blue Devils.

"This is the NCAA Tournament," guard Nolan Smith said Tuesday. "There's no such thing as an easy path."

If anyone would know lately, it's these current Blue Devils. Through the past few years, they've learned just how difficult it is to roll through a bracket.

Duke (29-5) holds the No. 1 seed in the South Regional -- its first top seed since 2006 -- and will face Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Friday in Jacksonville, Fla. The Blue Devils haven't reached the Final Four since 2004, the school's longest drought since coach Mike Krzyzewski got his powerhouse program rolling in the mid-1980s.

Some have argued that a favorable tournament draw has given the Blue Devils an edge to end that streak this year. But if there's one thing these players have learned through the stages of their careers, it's that getting to the national semifinals isn't quite as simple as those Duke teams made it look in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

Krzyzewski might have made it to 10 Final Fours in three decades at Duke, but not with any of his current players.

"There's so many upsets every year, every game's going to be hard," Smith said. "So we definitely don't pay any attention to the 'easy path' thing."

In large part, that's because nothing came easy for the current Blue Devils in past NCAA tournaments, and while the seniors have made incremental progress in advancing a step deeper in the bracket each year, each run still ended with an upset.

The seniors were freshmen on the team that went one-and-done against Virginia Commonwealth. The following year, Duke won its opener -- in last-second fashion against 15th-seeded Belmont -- before being bounced by West Virginia. Last year's team reached the round of 16 for the first time since 2006, but it was knocked out by eventual Final Four participant Villanova.

"I think it's good for our upperclassmen to remember the last three tournaments, and what they learned from them," Krzyzewski said. "How they felt after a win, after a loss, because it's an abrupt ending. The tournament is cruel in its abruptness."

With three players -- Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament Most Valuable Player Kyle Singler, heady guard Jon Scheyer and Smith -- capable of scoring 20 points in any game, and 7-foot-1-inch center Brian Zoubek finally putting up rebounding numbers that suit his sizable frame, these Blue Devils appear better built to make a deep tournament run than their most recent predecessors, with Krzyzewski calling this his best team since the 2005-06 team was led by J.J. Redick.

Even that group wound up going home early, with Louisiana State ending Redick's college career in the regional semifinal round. This team is embracing its status as a No. 1 seed -- when that was announced Sunday, Smith tweeted simply: "Yessirrr!!!" -- without getting caught up in looking too far down the bracket.

But that's not to say Smith isn't aware which team could await in a second-round matchup: Louisville.

And understandably so. Smith's late father, Derek, was a nine-year NBA veteran who played on the Cardinals' national championship team in 1980.

"I'm not going to lie -- I'm definitely looking forward to (playing Louisville), if that was to be the possible matchup," Smith said. "Knowing my father went there and knowing everybody on the team, I know the program and everybody around Louisville basketball, so that'd be a treat to play them."

DAYTON, Ohio -- Arkansas-Pine Bluff finally found a trip to its liking.
Allen Smith scored 14 points Tuesday and hit two 3-pointers during the Golden Lions' second-half surge to a 61-44 victory over Winthrop in the NCAA Tournament's opening game.
The Golden Lions (18-15) will play Duke -- the No. 1 seed in the West -- on Friday in Jacksonville, Fla., a stunning development given how their season started. Arkansas-Pine Bluff lost its first 11 games -- all on the road -- before rallying to claim the Southwestern Athletic Conference title.
The fast exit was familiar for Winthrop (19-14), which has made the tournament nine times in the last 12 years but has one victory in those tries.