CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was quick to say on the postgame podium that his focus wasn’t on Kyrie Irving, but rather the entire team. That’s how it should be in the NCAA tournament.
But for those at the Time Warner Cable Arena Friday afternoon, the attention was solely on Irving.
And Sunday against Michigan will be no different.
Irving is back and the top-seed in the West suddenly got even tougher to punch out, an almost unheard of proposition during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
“We’re even more dangerous,’’ said ACC player of the year Nolan Smith. “We’ve just added a player as talented as him [who] can score the ball, and it gives us another weapon.’’
Irving played for the first time since Dec. 4 when he suffered a freak injury on a drive to the basket, tearing ligaments in his right big toe against Butler at the IZOD Center at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. He avoided surgery and had his foot in a cast and then a boot before he wore sneakers again. He practiced for the first time earlier this week after just going through non-contact, shooting drills last week during the ACC tournament in Greensboro.
Irving paced himself in the first half against Hampton, but didn’t hesitate to look for the openings on the break or hunt for his shot in the second half. He finished with a team-high 14 points in 20 minutes off the bench, making both 3s, all four free-throw attempts and finishing with one assist, two turnovers, two steals and a block in Duke’s 87-45 victory.
“It was a good performance, good to be out there with my teammates,’’ Irving said. “I just wanted to integrate myself into Coach K’s system and fit as well as I could. In the second half, I just had to be more aggressive and Coach said just play my game.’’
His game is to look for the opening in the lane. Granted the competition was the MEAC champ Hampton. But that shouldn’t matter in the assessment. Of course, Michigan will be a tougher opponent Sunday and the openings won’t be as grand. But Irving is finding his comfort zone just as Duke is set to play a potential six-game season.
Remember, Irving was Duke’s leading scorer when he got hurt. He was scoring 17 points per game and lit up Michigan State for 31 on Dec. 1. He would have been a candidate for the freshman and national player of the year awards, let alone ACC player of the year, had he stayed healthy.
Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils were fortunate to get Irving 20 minutes on Friday versus the Pirates. He said that playing with the unit he was on didn’t get in Smith’s way (on the second unit).
“I was really pleased,’’ Krzyzewski said. “I thought he was very confident as it moved along.’’
The Blue Devils were already a No. 1 seed without Irving. But if he can continue to progress this weekend, then they emerge as a favorite, if not slightly ahead of Ohio State and Kansas as the favorites. If Irving can play 25-28 minutes at point guard by next weekend in Anaheim -- assuming the Blue Devils beat Michigan -- then Duke's frontcourt will shine more in a transition game.
“Kyrie helps our team,’’ Duke senior forward Kyle Singler said. “We are a really good team. And now we’ll just have to learn how to play with him again. But he’s easy to play with, and it won’t be too hard.’’