- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Before we turn to tonight's helping of Sweet 16 madness, it seems important -- well, not important, but at least worthwhile -- to debunk an altogether too-common theme emerging from Arizona's 93-77 thrashing of Duke Thursday night.
The Blue Devils did not lose because Kyrie Irving played. Period. End of story.
Irving scored 28 points on 9-of-14 from the field, and his attacking brand of point guard play gave the Blue Devils more than a few easy buckets at key moments throughout the first half. That sort of performance couldn't have hurt Duke, right? You wouldn't think so. But because Irving's excellence was parallel to All-American and national player of the year candidate Nolan Smith's struggles -- Smith scored eight points on 3-of-14 from the field -- this reaction was probably bound to spring up more than once in the day that followed. Did Kyrie Irving's return "mess up" Duke chemistry? Did Irving's performance undermine Smith?
You can understand the temptation. After all, this was a concern going in: Wasn't bringing Irving back for the tournament after three months of Irving-less Duke basketball a risk? Didn't it require a shift in the team's attack at the exact time a No. 1 seed doesn't want to be shifting anything?
Well, sure. But Thursday night's loss didn't play out that way. There are a couple reasons why the "Irving hurt Smith/Duke" meme is wrongheaded.
For one, correlation does not equal causation. Just because Smith plays poorly while Irving plays well doesn't mean the two are necessarily related. Smith could have played poorly anyway. Maybe he just had a bad shooting night. After all, it's not like he didn't get touches.
More importantly, Duke wasn't doomed by its offense. Duke lost because Arizona was unstoppable on the other end. The Wildcats scored 55 points in 36 possessions in the second half Thursday; the Blue Devils were bumrushed from top to bottom by a more athletic, determined and, frankly, out-of-its-mind-good Derrick Williams-led team. The Irving-Smith dynamic didn't have anything to do with that.
It's easy to blame Coach K for this loss, easy to see him as having taken a gamble on Irving's return, easy to say that gamble didn't work. But easy all too frequently equals "untrue," and that's the case here. Frankly, Duke's loss would have been much worse without Irving's performance, and besides if you were Duke, and arguably your best player -- certainly the one with the most pure talent -- was able to play in the most important games of the season, can you really afford to keep him on the bench? It's a lose-lose scenario: If Duke loses without Irving, everyone asks "what if?" If Duke loses with him, well, you get what we've gotten in the past 20 or so hours.
The whole line of thinking is just kind of ... lazy. There's no numerical basis for it, and for the "I know what I saw!" crowd, well, what did you see, exactly? I find it hard to believe that anyone who watched last night's game could clearly see signs of how Irving torpedoed the Blue Devils offense. We can spend some time with the tape, but I certainly didn't see it.
But even the theory is true -- and again, it's not -- offense didn't matter anyway. Unless Coach K's stud freshman gave Arizona some tips on how to score at an entirely unexpected and unforeseen rate against one of the nation's best defenses, his presence didn't keep Duke from winning the game. Williams, MoMo Jones, Jamelle Horne and Solomon Hill did.
In many ways, that answer is even easier. Even better is that it's actually right.