Jay Williams, the former Duke point guard and current ESPN college basketball analyst, broke some news last night: Kyrie Irving will play in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He quickly softened his stance after that tweet, adding, “There’s a chance.” Either way: Is this really a good thing for Duke?
1. Duke played eight games with Irving, a dynamic freshman point guard who was so impressive, he’s already considered a Top 5 NBA draft pick. (My, how the world is changed – Cam Newton played one season at the toughest position in football and he could go No. 1 in the NFL draft; Irving played eight games in college at the toughest position in basketball and people think he’s ready to run an NBA team.) They were 8-0. Without him, they were 22-4. Heading into the NCAA tournament, stats guru Ken Pomeroy has Duke as the No. 2 team in the country. Last year, we documented how accurate Ken Pomeroy can be. Bottom line: Without Irving, Duke is a very strong candidate to repeat as champs. The guys in Vegas who spend all day crunching numbers seem to agree.
2. Here is what Coach K said about how much Irving would play, via the Associated Press: “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.” What is the point of that? Why tinker with team chemistry? You know where this is going to lead, obviously – Irving will look brilliant in limited action, and if a second round game against Tennessee (or Michigan) is close in the final 10 minutes, Coach K may feel pressured to go with his most talented player, even if he’s already seen “limited minutes.” Then the rotation is out of whack, timing could be off on the court – how much has he practiced with the team? – and people are being forced into roles they may not be ready for (or want). Worse of all … how bad would it look to lose a game with Irving on the bench?
3. Chemistry. The most difficult aspect to address. Everyone will have their own opinion. Mine: Irving dominates the ball when he plays, and I think it’s a bad idea to put that kind of player into the mix in the tournament when he hasn’t practiced with the team and isn’t 100% healthy. If he had played for a year or two at Duke, maybe it’s another story. If he’s at any other position, it’s definitely another story.
4. It is very difficult to draw any declarative statements based on eight games. But in those games with Irving back in November and on December 1, I saw an awkward Kyle Singler, who went from Final Four MVP to being … the third option on offense early in the season. In those first eight games (well, the ones I saw on TV), Singler seemed to be forcing shots – was the NBA on his mind? – and he shot just 14-of-42 from three (33%, which was down a bit from last year). Take out the game where Singler was playing in his home state against his brother (5-9 vs. Oregon) and Singler was just 9-33 from deep (27 percent). Singler never recovered his shooting touch this year, and finished the regular season at 31 percent from three, significantly down from last year (39 percent). Maybe the NBA was on his mind. Or he never recovered from the bad start.
5 . But my bigger chemistry concern has to do with Nolan Smith, the ACC Player of the Year. Smith was a certified badass this year, and is a lock for 1st team All-American. But like Irving, he dominates the ball. Smith was a very nice player last year, but he blossomed into a superstar this year – after Irving went down. Again, using that small eight game sample size (at least the ones I saw), Smith seemed to be unsure of his role and appeared to force the action. No stat really jumps out, except perhaps the 28 turnovers in eight games (a hair up a bit compared to his entire season) and he appeared to be more of a jump shooter (6.4 FTA during the season; 5.5 in those eight games).
I think bringing Irving into the mix opens up more potential problems than solutions. With my zero years of coaching experience, and zero seconds of seeing Irving play basketball since he went down in the Michigan State game, I’d keep him out.
* Sounds much better if you use the tone of the Karate Kid announcer. Daniel LaRusso’s gonna fight?