CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The chatter about Duke being a prohibitive favorite now that Kyrie Irving is back on the court and playing meaningful minutes is just noise now.
Michigan proved Sunday afternoon that Duke can be beaten, even if the Wolverines failed to convert on their final possession to send the game into overtime.
ACC Player of the Year Nolan Smith scored 24 points, but Irving offered a glimpse of the extra dimension he can offer the Blue Devils. He scored only one field goal, but it gave Duke a 72-69 lead with 32 seconds left, and proved to be the decisive score in the Blue Devils’ 73-71 win.
If you’re looking for a reason why good karma is flowing in the Blue Devils’ direction, look no further than Irving, who gives them another scorer to create and finish pressure plays.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Irving’s shot was as high-pressure a shot as one can take, especially considering it came in only his second game since returning to the lineup after a toe injury kept him out since Dec. 4.
“I just looked up, saw the time and saw that there was a [Michigan player] coming over to possibly take a charge,’’ Irving said. “It’s been a long time since I was in a pressure situation and end-of-game situation like that.’’
Irving finished with 11 points, nine of which came at the free throw line, in 21 minutes. He played 20 minutes and scored a team-high 14 points in Duke’s rout over No. 16 seed Hampton Friday.
Michigan flustered Duke late in the second half when it switched to its 1-3-1 defense, with Irving failing to get the ball out of his hands on one possession, resulting in a shot-clock violation. He said he wasn’t being aggressive enough. Kyle Singler said the Blue Devils weren’t used to going against a team that had four guards on the floor. In the moments preceding Irving’s only bucket, Duke’s offense had become stagnant.
“Having him back, we definitely need him against the teams we’re going to play,’’ said Smith.
Michigan cut Duke’s lead to two with nine seconds left on a Darius Morris bucket. Smith followed by making only one of two free throws, giving the Wolverines one last chance, but Morris missed an open look in the paint that would have tied the game.
“We won a big-time game and we told our kids it would be like playing Butler in the national championship game, going into this game,’’ Krzyzewski said. “They’re a very tough-minded, good basketball team.’’
“Our confidence is really high,’’ Hardaway Jr. said. “We can get better.’’
Michigan will in 2012.
Duke, meanwhile, can still improve in time for Thursday’s Sweet 16 game in Anaheim, Calif.
Irving will have a few more practices to mesh into the lineup even more. He said he has no restrictions and is good to go from this point forward. This is unchartered territory in college hoops. I’m not sure we’ve seen a situation like this in which a player joins a No. 1 seed and Final Four contender at the start of the NCAA tournament after missing three months.
“For him to be put in that position and make that floater as soft as it can be, that’s a heck of a thing for the kid,’’ Krzyzewski said. “I mean, he’s 9-for-10 from the foul line. We wouldn’t be going forward if he didn’t play. That doesn’t take away from Ryan [Kelly] or anyone else, but you take one of those kids out of the equation and Michigan is going forward because they played winning basketball.’’
Krzyzewski used Irving more as a sub for Smith and other guards against Hampton. But against Michigan, Irving was a finisher. He probably will keep the same role so as not to disrupt any team chemistry, especially with starter Seth Curry. But the Blue Devils know Irving has to be on the court to end games.
“I think a real big reason why we won [Sunday] is that he got 20 minutes against Hampton,’’ said Krzyzewski, who won his 900th game Sunday. “We kept him in the ballgame and he hit those 3s. I don’t care how much you practice, you’ve got to get back on stage and do your dancing or singing or whatever you’re doing in front of people. That was critical for us, the Hampton game.
“We’re in a period of adjusting to Kyrie coming back,’’ Krzyzewski added. “So we got better as the week went along.’’
And Duke may be even more dangerous next week as Irving gets more integrated into the lineup. That doesn’t mean the Blue Devils can’t be beaten in Anaheim or Houston. They can. But having Irving on the court and making game-changing plays makes it even more difficult to push them out of the field.