CHARLOTTE — A week has passed now, but C.J. Lee still is amazed at what he saw when the Michigan basketball team gathered last Sunday night to watch ESPN’s documentary on the Fab Five.
Much has been made in recent days about the comments made in the film by former Wolverines player Jalen Rose, who said the black players recruited by Duke — specifically Grant Hill — were “Uncle Toms.” But that wasn’t what caught Lee’s attention.
“What people may not realize is it was a lot of our guys’ first encounter with the history of the program,” said Lee, a point guard during Coach John Beilein’s first two years at Michigan who now serves as an administrative specialist for the team. “And the fact of the matter is Jalen was expressing how he felt when he was 19. We really don’t concern ourselves with the comments, because obviously, we’re gearing up for a game against the defending national champions.”
But Rose’s controversial statement — and Hill’s subsequent response in a New York Times op-ed piece this week — have added a new layer of intrigue to Sunday’s West Region second-round game between top-seeded Duke and the eighth-seeded Wolverines, a matchup that already had its fair share of story lines.
Coaches and players from both teams have shied away from commenting on the situation, because “it really has absolutely nothing to do with this game,” said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who added he did not watch the film. “This is my 101st NCAA [tournament] game. Do you think I need motivation from a documentary?”
“I don’t even know what an Uncle Tom is. Somebody give me the definition,” Blue Devils guard Nolan Smith said. “That was a long time ago when the ’91, ’92 teams were playing against each other. So, I mean, we know it’s going to be a tough game tomorrow just based off that. When Duke and Michigan go head to head, it’s going to be a battle.”
This, though, is the first time the two programs have met in the NCAA tournament since the 1992 national championship game, when Duke beat a Michigan team that featured an all-freshmen starting lineup — the Fab Five — to capture its second consecutive title.
This current incarnation of the Blue Devils is attempting to accomplish the same feat. A victory Sunday would put Duke in the Sweet 16 for the 11th time in 13 years and would be Krzyzewski’s 900th career win.
With the return of star freshman Kyrie Irving, it would seem Krzyzewski’s chances of reaching that milestone are quite good. In the Blue Devils’ 87-45 rout of No. 16 seed Hampton on Friday, the guard scored a game-high 14 points in 20 minutes after missing more than three months with a serious toe injury.
Krzyzewski said Saturday he wasn’t worried about Irving’s return having an effect on anyone’s ego. Instead, he suggested the injury may have been a blessing in disguise for the rest of the team now that Irving looks as if he could be a difference maker Sunday and, perhaps, in another run to the Final Four.
“We would rather have not had Kyrie injured,” Krzyzewski said. “But as a result of that, there was a need for all these guys to get better, and they’ve gotten better. . . . And hopefully now Kyrie and what he can do limited-wise will help advance that team. That’s how we’re trying to approach it.”
For Michigan, a win over the Blue Devils would cement the sort of program-defining season that the school sought when it hired Beilein in 2007. The Wolverines already have a sweep of in-state rival Michigan State this season after losing six of its first seven Big Ten games.
The last time Michigan faced the Blue Devils, in December 2008, Beilein and the Wolverines emerged with a 81-73 court-storming home win en route to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 11 years.
But on Saturday, Beilein said his best memory of the Blue Devils-Wolverines rivalry centered around another December contest — his first game as a Division I coach, when Canisius lost to Duke, 110-62, in 1992.
“We walked into the shoot-around and Krzyzewskiville was set up,” Beilein recalled, referring to the student-populated tent city that is erected near Cameron Indoor Stadium in advance of Duke’s home games. “I go: ‘Damn. They’re set up in Krzyzewskiville to play Canisius?’ I asked somebody, ‘You’re set up, camping out for the Canisius game?’ He said, ‘Heck no, we play Michigan this weekend.’ And so how ironic is that right now?”