— Watch the Duke Blue Devils on television and at least once a game there will be a predictable cutaway camera shot to the Duke bench.
That guy in street clothes? That's Kyrie Irving, the Duke freshman guard who injured his toe and may not return to action this season. The suspense is killing us. Why? Well, if there’s one player powerful enough to change this season, it has to be Kyrie Irving.
And we all want to know.
North Carolina travels to Duke Wednesday night to continue the greatest rivalry in college basketball. Suddenly, this one has a lot of intrigue because the Tar Heels have won five straight and are in second place in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings — right behind first-place Duke. A month ago, that didn’t seem likely.
Things are exactly as they should have been — except for the fact Irving won’t be playing. Neither will Larry Drew II, who bolted on the Tar Heels last week, right when they needed him most. But that’s another story.
We see Irving and we are reminded that there is the game being played — and then there’s the story that overrides the game being played. We haven’t seen Irving in uniform since injuring his toe Dec. 4 against Butler. (It’s almost hard to remember that far back, isn’t it? Duke won 82-70 and at that point we were still excited about a rematch of last season’s championship game. Butler has kind of killed that thrill, huh?)
Duke was 8-0 and No. 1 in the nation. Irving played 34 minutes that day and scored 21 points. His backcourt mate, Nolan Smith, scored 24 points. When your backcourt is so good that Kyle Singler can have foul trouble and become a third scoring option, you’ve got a contender.
Irving was averaging 17.1 points, 5.1 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game when he went down. He was shooting over 45 percent from 3-point range. He was better than advertised and it didn’t take long to realize the possibilities.
“Well, I think that Duke seemed to start the season off, even though they lost some players last year, they seem to have been really in sync with Kyrie Irving,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said Monday. “I think he's given them such a different dimension. They won a national title, but with him they were better than they were last year I thought early on in the season.”
That’s what everyone was thinking.
At first, the toe appeared to be a minor injury. But when the Blue Devils played Bradley the next week, Irving was in street clothes and Coach K said he was out indefinitely. Coach K said Irving’s status would be updated in a week or 10 days. Then Coach K said there was a possibility Irving would be lost for the season.
Suddenly we looked at Duke in a different way.
“To their credit, once they lost him to the injury, they seem to be playing at an extremely high level,” Hamilton said. “That just says a lot about their system, how the kids have bought in, the job they're doing.”
But it seemed as if the Blue Devils were one bad shooting night away from a loss. That’s what happened Jan. 12 against Florida State. Duke shot 31.1 percent overall and lost 66-61.
“They knocked us back,” Krzyzewski said. “We have a long way to go.”
There was a little excitement last week when Irving had his cast removed. According to most reports, that was an expected part of the long-term plan. The good news was that doctors didn’t find additional reason for concern and they are encouraged by the way the injury is healing. The bottom line is Irving still has a month of rehabilitation before an assessment of his playing status can be made. This isn’t a common basketball injury and that makes recovery difficult to gauge.
Krzyzewski keeps saying Irving will not return this season. He’d be foolish to frame it any other way — and Coach K is no fool. Any other stance would put unfair pressure on Irving and create false hope for the other Duke players, who have had a taste of how high Irving can elevate this team when he is in the starting lineup.
But what if Irving’s rehab comes along much better than expected? I have a hunch we will see Irving again before this season is over. Krzyzewski may have a tough choice to make, perhaps right before the start of the ACC tournament. If everyone feels comfortable with Irving’s condition, why not bring him back? His presence would clearly make Duke the team to beat in a year where there is no dominant team.
Barring a serious collapse between now and Selection Sunday, Duke should stay in the mix for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. When it comes to seeding the Blue Devils, the tournament committee isn’t going penalize to Duke for not having Irving. This isn’t 2000 when Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Atlantic-10 tournament and Cincinnati dropped from a No. 1 seed to a No. 2 seed.
In fact, this isn’t Patty Mills in 2009 when his broken hand cost St. Mary’s a NCAA bid, or last season when Purdue’s seed dropped when Robbie Hummel tore his ACL. Those memorable injuries happened at the end of the season and the committee didn’t have time to evaluate how those teams would re-invent themselves. Irving’s injury happened so early in the season, the committee members had plenty of time to observe Duke without him.
All the committee needs to hear is that Irving is back and the Blue Devils will back in the discussion for a No. 1 seed. If they take care of business, of course.
There’s only one other blemish on the Duke result sheet. The disaster against St. John’s was one of those games Coach K clearly used as a learning experience and the Blue Devils have bounced back with outstanding wins over Maryland and North Carolina State. Nolan Smith leads the ACC in scoring and assists as he puts together a once-in-a-lifetime season. Coach K has worked guard Tyler Thornton into the starting lineup. Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry have started as well. Five players have started on the perimeter since Irving went out.
After beating Maryland, Krzyzewski wouldn’t say the Devils have worked their way back to where they were with Irving in the lineup.
“We were very good, but we have a lot of young guys,” he told reporters after the Feb. 3 game. “With Kyrie we’re that good — we have a chance to be something special.”