College Basketball Nation: Nolan Smith

Jimmer and friends resurrect hoops tonight

September, 22, 2011
There's a basketball game on national television tonight, and Jimmer is playing in it.

For fans lulled to sleep by the NBA lockout and the lengthy college offseason, the Jimmer's All-Stars event on the BYU campus will feature the professional debuts of numerous NBA draft picks, including host Jimmer Fredette, fellow team captain Kawhi Leonard and national champion Kemba Walker.

The exhibition features numerous storylines that developed after Team Fredette coached by BYU's Dave Rose and Team Leonard coached by San Diego State's Steve Fisher conducted a draft to fill in the eight-man rosters.

Fredette and Walker, the native New Yorkers who led the nation in scoring last season, will be on opposite sides and square off for the first time.

Fredette and Leonard, whose college teams had epic showdowns last season that raised the profile of the Mountain West and resulted in a shared conference championship, will face off again.

Fredette's team includes fellow Sacramento Kings draft pick Tyler Honeycutt, whose former UCLA teammate Malcolm Lee is on the other side and has the distinction of holding Fredette to a season-low of 25 points in games BYU lost last season.

Former BYU guard Jackson Emery also returns to the Marriott Center for possibly his one and only professional game, as he'll team up with Fredette one more time after recently deciding to step away from basketball.

And for NBA fans looking to get a glimpse of first-round picks Bismack Biyombo, Chris Singleton, Tobias Harris, Nolan Smith and Kenneth Faried, here's your chance.

"The draft was a lot of fun and helped continue the buzz about the game on Thursday," Fredette said in a statement. "I'm excited about my team and I know Kawhi feels like he has a great squad as well. Personally, I'm really looking forward to playing one final game with Jackson in front of our home fans. We had so many great memories during our career at BYU and it will be fun to enjoy one last game night experience together at the Marriott Center."

The game originally scheduled in Salt Lake City as part as what was to have been a two-game exhibition series was canceled, so tonight's the night to tune in to BYUtv.

Basketball is being played again, and that's reason enough for excitement.
See, that headline sounds bad on the surface. What is Nolan Smith, one of the more mild-mannered hoops stars of recent memory, doing getting himself thrown out of AAU games like some overbearing parent?

In reality, Smith was doing his best Norman Dale impression. And guess what? It worked.

CBS's Jeff Goodman spoke with Smith, who was coaching AAU outfit D.C. Assault at a tournament in Phoenix on Wednesday night, and got him to discuss his tactics. According to Smith, D.C. Assault was struggling, the refs were making questionable calls, and the former Duke star decided that he needed to inspire a little "fire" in his kids. To wit:
"It felt good," the usually mild-mannered Smith said just minutes after the game. "Coaching and playing is totally different. I was frustrated with the team not playing hard and not playing with energy. I knew my team would respond in the right way." [...] "We were down 19 when I did it," Smith said. "And we came back and lost by 2."

It's official: I have a mental image of Smith as Hickory High coach Norman Dale. I can just see it. Smith tells the ref to throw him out, the ref says, "well, I guess you've got your reasons," as Smith turns back to the bench and hands his leather notebook to terrified assistant coach Kyle Singler. (Singler wasn't there, but don't ruin this for me; I am greatly enjoying this mental image.) The only thing missing is Singler telling the players to "not get caught watching the paint dry" as he leads them to a miraculous comeback victory. Truly inspirational stuff.

Kyrie Irving thought twice about leaving

April, 7, 2011
Duke freshman Kyrie Irving tried to envision what life would be like if he returned to school next year instead of leaving for the NBA draft.

"Similar to Kemba Walker at UConn, being the go-to guy," Irving said Thursday.

Being the centerpiece of a strong national championship contender wasn't enough to sway Irving, of course. He's expected to be one of the top picks in the draft after needing only 11 games as a Blue Devil to show off his talent.

But, according to Irving, he did consider going back to school after Duke lost to Arizona in the Sweet 16.

"I really considered it based on the fact on how much it hurt to lose in the NCAA tournament," Irving said. "That was a devastating loss for me. I felt me coming back would make everything click. It was weighing on my shoulders for about two weeks. That would have been the deciding factor for me coming back -- me wanting to win a national championship next year."

Ultimately, neither the toe injury that cost him more than three months of action nor the potential of an NBA lockout were enough to make him come back to school.

"Having an opportunity to be such a high pick at such a young age is an opportunity not many people will have," said the 19-year-old Irving, thanking each media member who congratulated him.

Irving called coach Mike Krzyzewski on Wednesday afternoon with the news, and the two spoke for about a half hour. He thanked Coach K for helping turn him into a better player -- even as he sat out injured -- and felt the Duke experience would help him become a better pro.

"I felt really immature in terms of on- and off-the-court preparation," Irving said. "That was one thing coach helped me out with along with Kyle [Singler] and Nolan [Smith].

"When you come into Duke and play at such a high level, you're going to have to play like a professional and prepare like a professional."

Kyrie Irving still left behind a legacy

April, 6, 2011
Kyrie Irving's career at Duke lasted 11 games and 303 minutes before he announced he would leave for the NBA draft, the star guard depriving college basketball fans of a full season due to his toe injury.

During that short time, his quickness and creativity on the floor enabled him during to average 17.5 points and 4.3 assists. In the Sweet 16 loss to Arizona, he came back to score 28.

Overlooked in Irving's impact was his megawatt smile and playful personality that were on display even as his toe healed too slowly for him to play for more than three months. Watching him in street clothes on the bench, he was as demonstrative as any celebrating walk-on.

Can anyone remember a moment during that time in which the one-and-done talent sulked? Asked what he would miss most about Duke, Irving said, "That gives me butterflies just thinking about it."

"This was a special year for me," Irving said in a statement. "I love everything about Duke and I'm going to miss it. Duke has a special place in my heart. Even though I'm leaving this year, Duke will always be in my mind and my heart. I'm going to miss putting on that No. 1 jersey."

Duke loses Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, but the Blue Devils shouldn't be hurting too much with the arrivals of top recruits Austin Rivers and Quinn Cook to help form a future backcourt. Irving serves as a fine example for the incoming players.

For a talented teenager who didn't see everything go as planned for him, Irving made the best of it.

"Our whole program is overjoyed with having Kyrie here for one year and that he has the chance now to pursue a dream of being a high draft pick and a great player in the NBA," coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement.
Remember back in October, when North Carolina's Harrison Barnes became the first freshman to be selected as a preseason first-team AP All-American? Many thought Barnes was merely overhyped. That was probably true (though Barnes did live up to his advance billing before long).

But hype was only part of the AP's hive-minded reasoning. Just as important was the desire to accurately predict the postseason list, which had in many ways become dominated by the top recruits in each year's class. John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant: There was bound to be a freshman on the list by the end of the season, so why not put one on in the preseason?

The idea wasn't wrong. The player was. In the end, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger became this year's lone freshman to grace the AP All-American first team, a deserving honor after a dominant season for the nation's best regular-season team.

In the end, though, this year's All-Americans were not defined by youth. Instead, this list is defined by its seniority.

Three of the AP's first-team -- BYU guard Jimmer Fredette, Duke guard Nolan Smith, and Purdue forward JaJuan Johnson -- were seniors in 2010-11. UConn's Kemba Walker was a junior. The three seniors are the most since the 2006 team, which had four.

What about the player of the year awards? The first, the USBWA's Oscar Robertson Trophy, went to a senior, too. That senior was no surprise: It's Jimmer Fredette.

Expect to hear plenty of arguments on Fredette's worthiness in the coming week. After all, the nation's other main candidate for the award -- Walker -- has played his best hoops in March and guided his team to the Final Four, while Fredette fell in the Elite Eight to Florida. But the end-of-season awards don't factor in postseason performance; much of the voting is complete before the NCAA tournament even begins.

Whether that's the best way to do it or not is up for debate. I tend to think it is, if only because voters can be irrationally swayed by tournament results, and college hoops has already marginalized its regular season. Either way, though, it's hard to argue that Fredette wasn't the best, most consistent and most entertaining player in the college game this season. Title run or not, we'll always remember him as such. And he'll have the hardware to prove it.
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.

Duke no match for underdog Arizona

March, 25, 2011

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Derrick Williams had sensed the disrespect. In his mind, not many thought Arizona could actually upset defending national champion Duke.

But with Williams, the Wildcats have a game-changer unlike any other. By the time he got done scoring 32 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in a 93-77 win against Duke, Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski was left heaping praise on the star sophomore and telling the 6-foot-8 forward that he was indeed special.

“He’s as good as anybody we’ve played, or I should say better than anybody we’ve played,” said Krzyzewski, who finished the season with 900 career Division I wins. “Even when he’s not scoring, he spreads you out. There is a physicality to his game. Clean, beautiful -- he’s a beautiful player.”

Williams’ 32 points tied a school record for most points in an NCAA tournament game, and it was the first time since 1990 that any player has scored that many in a win over the defending champs. It was a dominating performance that carried the Wildcats into a matchup with Connecticut in the Elite Eight, a place the Cats haven't been in six years.

For all the doubters who thought a young Arizona team under second-year coach Sean Miller was not yet ready to experience glory days, Williams provided the response on the court and with words of his own.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Williams and Kyle Singler
AP Photo/Jae C. HongDerrick Williams and Arizona sent Kyle Singler and Duke hurtling out of the tournament.
“It just proves a lot of people wrong right there,” Williams said. “I think a lot of people -- media, fans, friends -- said that we couldn’t do it, and this proved them all wrong. I think that next time that they pick somebody else to beat us, they’ll think differently.”

Williams, whose season has been defined by last-minute heroics -- including each of UA's first two tourney games -- this time made his deepest impact in the first half, when he scored 25 points on 8-of-11 shooting. He made five 3-pointers, including one with a second left on the clock to give the Wildcats a manageable six-point halftime deficit.

For all its NCAA tournament experience, Duke ended up getting dominated in a 55-point second half for Arizona, which ended up scoring more points than any Blue Devil tourney opponent in 14 years. The Wildcats went on a 19-2 run during which Lamont Jones tied the score at 53 with a jump shot and Jamelle Horne hit a 3-pointer to give Zona the lead. Horne, Williams and Brendon Lavender later soared for dunks, and the Wildcats got plenty of second-chance opportunities as well.

“In the second half, I just think they were the aggressor,” said Duke guard Kyrie Irving, who scored 28 points in his third game since returning from a toe injury. “They were throwing a lot more punches than us. Tonight they were the better team.”

While Irving said after the game that he remains undecided about his future at Duke, it was the end of the line for seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Krzyzewski had them both check out for the last time with 2:01 left and the Blue Devils trailing by 17, drawing them close and saying a few words.

The abrupt realization that his career was over caused Smith to bury his head in a towel and choke back tears on the bench. He scored eight points, going only 3-for-14 from the field while committing six of the team’s 11 turnovers. “Everybody on their team stepped up,” said a stunned Smith.

Singler had 18 points and eight rebounds, but the Wildcats shot 54 percent and controlled the glass by a 40-27 margin (25-9 in the second half). With the Blue Devils unable to stop Williams from further improving his NBA draft stock, they never made a serious run to get back into the game.

“Seeing them on the sideline and the name on their jerseys, we were bracing for it,” Horne said.

But the expected Duke run simply never came.

Said Krzyzewski: “They were phenomenal in the second half. We couldn’t stop ‘em. We just couldn’t stop ‘em.”

Duke could never find its rhythm, with Williams’ talent unmatched and his motivation for beating Duke made clear after the game. He knew all about the last meeting between the two schools in the 2001 national championship game that Duke won.

“One fan told me, ‘My shirt is getting small from the 1997 championship. I need another one,’” Williams said. “That flipped the switch. I want to give everyone what they want.”

In front of family and friends near his hometown and plenty of Arizona fans who made the short trip, Williams will now have a chance to help the Wildcats reach the Final Four for the first time since that '01 title game. A one-man wrecking crew at times, he’s destroying the notion that these Cats can’t start a new chapter in the program’s storied history.

“If we win this game on Saturday," Williams said, "we’re going to be known as one of the best Arizona teams to play."

On April 5, 2010, with a national title on the line, Duke and Butler sparred in Indianapolis for 40 minutes. In the end, Gordon Hayward's last-second, half-court heave missed by inches. Duke won the national title. Butler ended its storybook run with a real-world ending.

Eight months later, on Dec. 4, the two teams met in New Jersey. Butler played Duke closer than most expected, but the Blue Devils -- helped in part by some debilitating cramps from Butler guard Shelvin Mack -- pulled away late en route to an 82-70 win.

On Feb. 3 of this year, Duke was 20-2. Butler was 14-9. That ninth loss came on Feb. 3, when Butler, in the ugliest moment of what to that point had been a shockingly ugly year, lost to Youngstown State -- yes, last-place Youngstown State. It was the fifth Horizon League loss of the season for coach Brad Stevens. The Butler of 2010 was nowhere to be found.

[+] EnlargeButler's Matt Howard
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLast season Matt Howard and Butler had to watch Duke celebrate a national title, but the Bulldogs have outlasted the Blue Devils in 2011.
In other words, if someone hopped in a DeLorean, set the clock to Feb. 3, 2011, and told you that Butler would outlast Duke in the 2011 NCAA tournament, you would have had that person committed to a highly respected psychiatric facility. And not just because of the time-travel talk.

Just seven weeks later, well, that's where we are. Butler is in the Elite Eight. Duke is not. In case you needed another reminder that college basketball predictions are a foolhardy enterprise -- not that you did -- you won't do much better than Thursday night's simultaneous Sweet 16 action.

Perhaps it was fitting -- or ironic, or coincidental, or all three -- that these two teams' trajectories led them to this night. Duke rolled through much of the regular season as one of the national title favorites -- if not the favorite. Butler struggled from its opening game (a blowout loss at Louisville).

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski found himself replacing his star freshman point guard (the injured Kyrie Irving) by shifting All-American Nolan Smith to the point, with brilliant results. Stevens found himself trying to replace Hayward, a lottery pick, and Willie Veasley, last season’s senior defensive stalwart, with a batch of marginal recruits.

But you wouldn't have been able to tell Thursday night. Butler handled an ice-cold Wisconsin offense with minimal issues, advancing the small Indiana school to its second straight Elite Eight. At the exact same time, thousands of miles west -- hooray for metaphors! -- Duke was waylaid by an athletic, aggressive, unintimidated Arizona team led by the de facto star of this NCAA tournament, forward Derrick Williams.

It's worth spending a moment reflecting on what Arizona -- not to mention Williams -- did to Duke at the Honda Center. It was, frankly, remarkable. The Wildcats attacked and attacked and attacked. They never relented. Williams was unstoppable inside and out, and his midair acrobatics were beautiful to behold.

Williams made three plays that punctuated this effort. Two of them were face-melting dunks (one in the first half, one in the second) and one was a Jimmer-esque deep 3 with the clock running out before halftime. Williams was unstoppable. Arizona was unstoppable. (To the tune of 1.36 points per possession, no less.) And for the first time in awhile, the Blue Devils looked generally rattled.

The nature of Duke's loss was remarkable, but really, the dual outcomes were the most surprising part of this night. Except for the last few minutes of Butler's win over Wisconsin, in which the Badgers made a last-ditch comeback attempt, those outcomes were apparent.

Duke was getting blown out. Butler was moving on.

If you called that, you're a genius. Or a savant. Or you have a really good sense of quasi-irony. Or whatever.

Chances are you, like pretty much everyone else in the world, didn't see this one coming. You didn't see it coming last year. You didn't see it coming in December. You didn't see it coming in February. You didn't see it coming yesterday.

But, yep, here we are. A pair of parallel seasons: one ending, one continuing. Another shocking upset. Another masterful postseason performance by Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs.

Another day in the NCAA tournament, where nothing -- nothing -- comes quite as advertised.

Rapid Reaction: Arizona 93, Duke 77

March, 25, 2011
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Arizona stunned defending national champion Duke 93-77, as the Wildcats head to the Elite Eight after outscoring the Blue Devils 55-33 in the second half. Derrick Williams had 32 points and 13 rebounds in a dominating performance that won't soon be forgotten. The last player with 30 points and 10 rebounds in a win over a No. 1 seed? Carmelo Anthony against Texas in the 2003 Final Four. Lamont Jones scored 16, and Solomon Hill added 13. Duke was led by Kyrie Irving's 28 points, but Nolan Smith struggled mightily in his final game. Smith scored eight points on 3-for-14 shooting and committed six turnovers. The national player of the year candidate averaged just 13.6 points per game in the NCAA tournament.

Turning point: A Williams dunk extended the Arizona lead to 73-61, and it wasn’t just any other dunk. Williams faked out his defender and then drove the lane for an uncontested slam. The exclamation point came during a relatively quiet second half for Williams, who scored 25 points in the first. But the power dunk sent the message to Duke that it wasn’t going to be the Blue Devils’ night.

Key player: Williams was simply masterful, finishing 11-for-17 from the field and going 5-for-6 from beyond the arc. Six of his 13 rebounds were on the offensive glass. The Pac-10 player of the year's NBA draft stock shot up, but first comes a chance at making it to the Final Four.

Key stat: Arizona outrebounded Duke 40-27 (25-9 in the second half), capitalizing on Williams' dominance and relying on 16 offensive rebounds for numerous easy shots. Williams had a putback dunk in the first half that rattled the rim and wowed the crowd. Jesse Perry had six rebounds, and Hill had five.

Miscellaneous: The Wildcats are back in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005. ... Duke now has five losses in the Sweet 16 as a top seed in the NCAA tournament. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no other program has more than two. ... Despite Irving's performance, the Blue Devils lacked an outside shooting presence and couldn't match up with Williams. ... Kyle Singler had 18 points and eight rebounds in his final game, but it wasn't enough. ... Entering Thursday, 5-seeds were 6-38 all time against No. 1 seeds. There's now a seventh member of that club. ... This was the fifth-most lopsided tournament loss in Duke history and the second-worst ever by a 1-seed prior to the Elite Eight. Ohio State's 17-point loss to St. John's in 1991 tops the list. ... Arizona's 93 points were the most scored by a Duke opponent in the NCAA tournament since 1997.

What’s next: No. 5 seed Arizona moves on to play No. 3 seed UConn on Saturday for the right to go to the Final Four.

Sweet 16 preview: Arizona vs. Duke

March, 24, 2011

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A look at the Wildcats-Blue Devils matchup at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.:

No. 5 seed Arizona (29-7) vs. No. 1 seed Duke (32-4) 9:45 p.m. ET (CBS)

How they got here: Duke survived Michigan in the round of 32, escaping with a two-point win that left coach Mike Krzyzewski upset with his team at times. The Blue Devils have spent the NCAA tournament incorporating freshman sensation Kyrie Irving back into the rotation, and he has come through with 14 points against Hampton and 11 against Michigan. Arizona has gotten to this point after two incredible end-of-game plays by star forward Derrick Williams. He blocked a potential game-tying shot to seal an opening-round win against Memphis then converted on the game-winning 3-point play against Texas to upset the Longhorns.

Storyline: While Arizona is the blue blood that has rapidly rebuilt and is once again in a position to make a deep run, Duke is the defending champ that keeps on chugging along.

There is another motivating factor for the Blue Devils. With two wins, they would not only go to the Final Four, but Krzyzewski would tie Bob Knight for the most Division I wins with 902.

“What he’s done at Duke speaks for itself, and that’s part of playing Duke is playing against a coach who has been there so many times that it’s never to your advantage going against them in this tournament,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

For the many Wildcats who are Southern California natives, the chance to go to the Elite Eight means they will play in front of family and friends. The team held a practice at Williams' alma mater, La Mirada, and a big game from the star sophomore would be special.

“Going back to my high school brought back a lot of memories,” Williams said.

Players to watch: Krzyzewski has repeatedly said that while Irving will not start he will play a “significant” amount of minutes. With Irving on the floor, Duke has another big-time weapon at its disposal, given his game-changing talent.

Arizona has reviewed film of Duke playing with Irving and without him. It’s just one more thing the Wildcats have to worry about on top of preparing for national player of the year candidate Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, who is in a bit of a funk.

“I don’t know if there has been another situation where you have almost a No. 1 seed without a player that many people would say is their best player, and now he‘s back in the equation,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, Duke will have Mason and Miles Plumlee try to match up against Williams, the Pac-10 Player of the Year.

“He’s part of our game plan, trying to stop him, and our big guys are ready for that task,” Smith said.

What to look for: The key for Duke will be to keep Williams from making a significant impact. Memphis and Texas did a decent job of that up until the final minutes, when Williams simply took over each game. He has the ability to block shots and shoot 3-pointers and is the best at getting to the line.

It might help Duke if Arizona forward Kevin Parrom is a step slow while recovering from a sprained ankle, but as the Wildcats showed against Texas, they have a deep bench.

Just as the Blue Devils will have to keep UA point guard Lamont Jones in check, Arizona will have to focus on stopping Duke’s penetration. That could prove difficult with Smith running the show and Irving lurking on the bench.

“Having Kyrie is a huge benefit for our team because he is so talented,” Smith said. “Even though he missed a lot of time, he was a great teammate while he was out.”

Duke has limits tested by Michigan

March, 20, 2011

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.’’

Michigan has a chance to be something special next season with its youth, led by Morris, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan; the latter two freshmen and Morris a sophomore.

“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.

Rapid reaction: Duke 73, Michigan 71

March, 20, 2011
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke got Kyrie Irving back this weekend here in Charlotte and Irving delivered with a bank shot to give the Blue Devils a critical three-point lead late in the game against Michigan.

But having Irving on the court, as much as that makes a difference for the Blue Devils at both ends of the court, doesn’t mean Duke is going to cruise in the NCAA tournament.

Michigan pushed Duke to the final possession, but Darius Morris couldn’t convert a runner in the lane to tie the game and the Wolverines fell 73-71 to the Blue Devils on Sunday afternoon in a West region third-round game at the Time Warner Cable Arena.

Duke got a bit too passive against Michigan’s changing defense, which included a sprinkling of the 1-3-1, and Michigan made plays late, especially from Tim Hardaway Jr., with a mid-range shot and a 3-pointer to cut Duke’s lead to one point with 90 seconds left.

Nolan Smith made 1 of 2 free throws to give Duke the lead at 73-71 to set up Morris’ final shot.

Key stat: Smith was sensational earlier in the game, finishing with 24 points and making 6 of 7 free throws.

Turning point: Michigan going to its changing defense was a difference for the Wolverines. Duke had a shot-clock violation during the run. Great call by Michigan to keep Duke off balance.

What’s next: Duke moves on to play the winner of Arizona-Texas in the West region Sweet 16 in Anaheim. Michigan moves on to be a serious threat to win the Big Ten in 2012.

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.

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving
Lance King/Icon SMIDuke freshman Kyrie Irving notched 14 points in 20 minutes in his first game since Dec. 4.
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.’’
Did you give up on Kyrie Irving? I did.

It's not just that Irving suffered a freak toe injury -- evil turf toe, basically -- that derailed his previously brilliant freshman season and kept him out of Duke's lineup since Dec. 4. It's that Duke has been so careful with Irving, so unwilling to rush him back on the floor before he was ready, that it seemed like coach Mike Krzyzewski had essentially decided that Irving's late-season return wasn't worth jeopardizing his rather bright future. (Irving could be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft in June.)

Throw in Duke's success since Irving's injury -- they're still a No. 1 seed, after all -- and the lack of notable updates on Irving's condition, and, well, yeah, Irving seemed done. Why take the risk, right?

[+] EnlargeDuke's Kyrie Irving
AP Photo/Sara D. DavisDuke guard Kryie Irving hasn't been in the Blue Devils line-up since Dec. 4. Could he be back for the NCAA tournament?
Then ... Tuesday happened. On Tuesday, Coach K told reporters that "there is a chance" Irving could play in Friday's first-round game versus Hampton. True story.

Now no one knows what to think. Which might be just the way Coach K likes it.

The pertinent details from the Associated Press:
Injured Duke point guard Kyrie Irving could return for the Blue Devils' NCAA tournament opener, coach Mike Krzyzewski said Tuesday night. Krzyzewski said Irving practiced "a little bit" with the team Tuesday, but he won't know for a few days whether the freshman will be available for the top-seeded Blue Devils' West Regional opener against 16th-seeded Hampton on Friday in Charlotte.

"There is a chance that he would play," Krzyzewski said.

The coach added that if Irving does come back, he won't start, would see only limited minutes and wouldn't be on the court for extended periods of time.

"You don't want to get where he gets hurt and hurts something else because you extend him past" his limits, Krzyzewski said. [...] "I'm going day by day, because I never expected him to be where he's at today," Krzyzewski said. "This is like uncharted waters."

The good news: You still have all day to adjust your bracket accordingly.

The bad news: Should you really adjust your bracket? How? Why? The answer to all three questions can only be "I don't know," because like Coach K said, these waters are uncharted. (Coach K is a simile guy. I prefer metaphor. Hey, to each his own.)

The reason your bracket situation might remain unchanged is the same reason this might be a risky proposition for Duke. After all, Irving hasn't played in a live game for three months. His only repetitions have come in light practice format. He took shots and ran drills during the ACC tournament, but he didn't dress for any of the Blue Devils' games. Putting aside the potential risk of further injury, can Duke really expect Irving to be ready, to not just contribute, but star for a team that has played so well without him?

It's a huge risk-reward proposition: With a healthy Irving in the lineup, the Blue Devils are probably the favorite to win the NCAA tournament. But if Irving gets hurt, or even if he throws a bit of a wrench into Coach K's well-oiled machine, the Blue Devils could very well underperform their already-high tournament expectations. It's hard to add players to your lineup at this stage of the season. It's hard to find time to practice in the NCAA tournament. And with the exception of Duke's first-round game versus the No. 16-seeded Hampton Pirates, there is no time to feel out where Irving stands, how the team will adjust, and whether it's a good idea to bring him back after all. After all, it's March Madness: As every coach in the country knows, all it takes is one haphazard game to end your season for good.

The one fearsome scenario I can think of is Irving as a backup point guard. Imagine that. Coach K could roll with his usual lineup but bring in Irving in spot situations for Nolan Smith. Even if Irving can't go 30 minutes, and merely takes Tyler Thornton's nine minutes per game, he could be some sort of super sixth man -- a secret weapon off the bench for which there is no answer.

I'll be honest: The first thing I thought when I heard the news Tuesday night was that Coach K was just messing with people, and I mean that as a compliment. The Hampton tilt (if you can call it that) won't require much gamesmanship, of course. But perhaps Krzyzewski saw the Irving dynamic as a chance to give potential second-round opponents Michigan and Tennessee something to think about. Maybe he wants Rick Barnes -- whose Longhorns would meet Duke in the Sweet 16 if seeds hold -- to fret about how his team will adjust to guarding Irving. The ability to hold a player as talented as Irving over opponents' heads is a rare one, and Coach K wouldn't be Coach K if he wasn't brilliant at utilizing every possible advantage. With Irving in game clothes, opposing coaches now have two game plans to prepare: one for the Duke of November, and one for the Duke we've seen ever since.

Of course, I might be reading too much into it. We'll find out Friday. In the meantime, though, good luck with your bracket. Are you more confident in Duke now? Or less so? And why? (If the phone call I received late Tuesday night from my Duke-picking friend was any indication, those with Duke in their brackets are quite excited. But should they be? Couldn't this be just as much of a risk to Duke's hopes, too?)

The answers are all: I don't know. But if any coach can make this situation work -- or at least use it to his advantage in the next three weeks -- it's Coach K. In other words, stay tuned.

Yes, the 2011 John R. Wooden Award finalists are here. The award is organized by the Los Angeles Athletic Club and voted on by "nearly 1,000 members of the media that cover college basketball," and if you're surprised at the idea that there are 1,000 college hoops writers in the world, well, you're not the only one. (Lots of those ballots go to columnists and generalists who don't specifically cover the sport year-round ... but that's a topic for another blog post on another day.)

Who made the cut? The list is below, and it includes pretty much everyone you'd expect from a list of college hoops' best and brighest individual stars. The rundown:
Well, done, Los Angeles Athletic Club. That is a borderline peerless list.

But it isn't perfect. The most notable omission (perhaps the only notable omission) is Kentucky forward Terrence Jones, who has been one of the best players in the country throughout the season. Ken Pomeroy's latest player of the year award list ranks Jones as the eighth-most productive player in the country this season, and while Pomeroy's POY metric doesn't account entirely for the defensive side of the ball, player of the year awards are never all that concerned with the defensive end -- Brooks and Burks probably wouldn't be on the list above if they were -- so Pomeroy's list is as good a statistical look as we have. And, well, yeah: Jones should be among the Wooden candidates. There's really no getting around it.

That said, his omission isn't criminal. Jones deserves some POY consideration, but let's be real: He's not winning the award. Nor are 19 of the players listed above. Unless something radical changes, Fredette is going to win the Wooden and Naismith player of the year awards. If the voting does change anytime soon, the award is likely to go to Walker, Smith, or Sullinger.

In other words, this list has all the usual suspects. We'll see if any of the candidates has time to unseat the Jimmer in the weeks to come. It's unlikely ... but, hey, you never know.