DURHAM, N.C. – Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith are on the verge of sharing a spot in the record books — even if only for a few days.
The next milestone for Duke's Krzyzewski will tie him with Smith at No. 2 on the all-time men's wins list. And in a neighborhood where college basketball rules, some of Krzyzewski's former players and assistants fully appreciate what it means for him to catch his longtime North Carolina rival.
"You talk about two obviously incredible coaches who have ever coached any sport," said former Duke star Tommy Amaker, now the Harvard coach. "And to have that in that neck of the woods in (such close) proximity, it makes it incredibly unique."
Barring a colossal upset, Krzyzewski will tie Smith at 879 career wins Monday night when the top-ranked Blue Devils (10-0) play Elon, then pass him Dec. 29 at UNC Greensboro. The only man ahead of both is Krzyzewski's mentor and former coach — Bob Knight, who has 902.
"It's obviously a heck of thing, but ... I have never really dwelled on anything like that, number of national championships or number of wins," Krzyzewski said after a recent victory over Bradley. "You have to play like you have something to prove every game, and I try to coach like it's the first game that I've coached at Duke or at Army or whatever, and whatever happens after that, happens."
Krzyzewski, who went 14-24 against the North Carolina teams led by fellow Hall of Famer Smith, is 878-279 with four national titles and 11 Final Fours in his 36th season as a head coach. He has long downplayed his victory total as merely a product of longevity.
"The only way you coach a long time is if you win. There are a lot of guys that want to coach a long time that don't win enough," said ESPN analyst and former Duke star Jay Bilas. "Duke didn't keep him on there to be charitable. At the end of my freshman year, we thought he was going to get run out of there.
"Some of the people who wanted to run him out are still sitting in that arena. ... I felt like things were on the upswing, but people were really impatient."
Smith was the undisputed king of Tobacco Road when Krzyzewski arrived from Army in 1980 and got off to a slow start at Duke.
After going 17-13 in his first season in 1980-81, the Blue Devils were a combined 22-34 the following two seasons. That came as his neighbors thrived: Smith captured his first national championship in 1982 and North Carolina State won it all in '83.
Then came the influx of star recruits that helped Duke take off. Bilas, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Johnny Dawkins arrived in 1982. Amaker joined them a year later to form the foundation of a program that rivaled Smith's powerhouse eight miles down the road.
Catching Smith is "truly a staggering milestone for Mike, and I think, really well deserved," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, a Krzyzewski assistant from 1987-95. "I just think he's so consistent on what he does well on a daily basis, with his team and his staff, and I think that's why you see almost a machine-like presence of their program right now."
Duke reached five consecutive Final Fours from 1988-92 while winning national titles in 1991 and '92, then won the 2001 and 2010 NCAA tournaments. His current team is talented enough to join them, though that might hinge on star guard Kyrie Irving's injured toe.
"There's a part of it that's kind of surreal," Bilas said. "I played for him and committed to play for him when I'd never heard of him. His wins were in the double digits then. To see him approaching 900 wins and have banked all this incredible success, on one hand, makes you feel old and, on the other, makes you feel incredibly fortunate. I'm 25 years out of school and my coach is still where I played."
But despite Krzyzewski's success and his steady climb up the wins list — all the way to the verge of catching the rival who looms so large in this region — the now-retired athletic director who hired him and stuck with him insists he has "never looked at it as vindication."
"There were a number of issues, and a lot of conversation about a lot of people, from a lot of people who didn't agree with my decision," former Duke AD Tom Butters said. "I agreed with it then. I agree with it now.
"And it's so easy for me 30 years later to say, 'Hey, I was right.' I have no interest in doing that. I made every single decision in my tenure at Duke to do what I thought was right for Duke. And if it works out, it isn't a matter of vindication. It's simply a matter of selecting good people."
AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report.