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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    What have we learned about Duke?

    March 22–DURHAM — Duke’s first two games in the NCAA Tournament were far from normal or easy as the Blue Devils strive to win a second consecutive championship.

    The top-seeded team in the West Region, Duke spent half of its NCAA Tournament opener on Friday melding guard Kyrie Irving back into the mix in his first game in nearly four months. The Blue Devils had to hold their collective breath Sunday, watching Michigan’s last-second shot bounce out.

    With the team taking a short break before facing Arizona in the Sweet 16on Thursday (9:45 p.m., WRAL), here’s a look at three things we learned as the Blue Devils stayed alive in Charlotte over the weekend.

    1. Kyrie Irving is an impact player

    This fact was proven in November and December when Irving averaged 17.4 points and 5.1 assists over Duke’s first eight games, all wins. But the freshman point guard showed Sunday that the months he missed with a toe injury did nothing to slow his ability to make the game’s biggest plays.

    Irving’s basket on a bank shot in traffic with 30.9 seconds left was crucial to Duke beating Michigan 73-71to earn a spot in the Sweet 16. Irving admitted to butterflies when he played on Friday against Hampton, the first time he’d played in a game since Dec. 4.

    On Sunday, when he scored 11 points by making 9-of-10 free throws and that one important field goal, he answered a major question about his ability to knock off the rust and play well.

    “”I think a lot has to be said about Kyrie, that he’s only had two-and-a-half practices,”” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “”For him to be put in that position and make that floater with as soft as it can be, that’s a heck of a thing for that kid.””

    The next step will be returning Irving to the starting lineup. Irving played 20 minutes against Hampton and also against Michigan, then was on the court in the game’s final minutes against the Wolverines. It seems to be only a matter of time (a few days perhaps?) until he’s on the court during the opening tipoff.

    2. An angry Nolan Smith is a good Nolan Smith (for Duke, that is)

    The smooth senior guard is among the most affable players in college basketball. Smith is quick with a good line in postgame news conferences and has an electric smile that lights up a room.

    But beneath that exterior lies one serious competitor.

    Krzyzewski challenged his team during a timeout early in the second half against Michigan. The energy level necessary to make Duke a champion again wasn’t there.

    Smith took the words as seriously as anyone and carried a stern look back to the court

    Once there, he scored 10 consecutive points and helped the Blue Devils build what eventually would be a 15-point lead.

    Smith said he wasn’t ready to take his Duke jersey off for good.

    “”Keep it on, all right?”” Krzyzewski told him.

    “”Michigan was playing us tough and, you know, I enjoy playing for Duke,”” Smith said. “”Every game could be my last, and I enjoy playing with my team, my teammates and trying to do whatever it takes not to lose.””

    3. Duke’s road to the Final Four remains treacherous

    As March Madness roars around the country, the West Region has been devoid of the major upsets that make the tournament special.

    Four of the top five seeds in the region remain alive as No. 1 Duke takes on No. 5 Arizona and No. 2 San Diego State will face third-seeded Connecticut.

    Compare that to the Southwest Region, where 12th-seeded Richmond, 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth and 10th-seeded Florida State join top-seeded Kansas in San Antonio this weekend.

    No. 8 seed Butler crashed the party (again) in the Southeast Regional, while 11th-seeded Marquette has a berth in the Sweet 16 in the East.

    The West is the only regional bracket where four teams that finished the season in the Associated Press Top 25 still are playing.

    To advance from this weekend at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., to the following weekend’s Final Four at Houston, Duke will have to play its best basketball of the season.

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