Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
WASHINGTON, D.C. –– If Duke wasn’t the favorite to win back-to-back NCAA championships before the Big Dance began, they should be now.
That’s because freshman guard Kyrie Irving made his triumphant return Friday, scoring 14 points and dishing four assists as No. 1 Duke routed No. 16 Hampton, 87-45, in a second-round West Regional game in Charlotte, N.C.
“I haven’t played in three months, so this game was really nerve-racking,” Irving said. “But once I got the butterflies out, I started to play really well.”
Irving last played Dec. 4 in a win over Butler at the Izod Center when he injured his right big toe.
He spent part of the season in a walking boot before having the boot removed and going to a specially designed Nike-made sneaker. He worked out publicly last week before an ACC Tournament game, leading to speculation that he would return for the NCAAs.
Now that he’s back, he transforms Duke’s offense, allowing Nolan Smith to play off the ball and Kyle Singler to play the power forward spot. Duke can use two point guards at once with Irving and Smith on the floor.
“A guy with his talent, him at 70 percent is better than a lot of guys at 100 percent,” said Duke guard Andre Dawkins, who had 13 points.
Irving checked in with 15:19 left in the first half to a standing ovation from the Duke fans. He was soon whistled for charging on his second trip downcourt, and his first shot – a wild up-and-under layup – wasn’t close.
“I was pressing a little bit instead of letting the game come to me,” Irving said.
On his next shift, Irving burst down the left side of the lane, drew a slap on the arm from Kwame Morgan and tumbled to the court – only to pop right up, unaffected, and knock down two free throws.
And once he found his rhythm from the field, he was nearly impossible for Hampton to stop, scoring on a pair of authoritative drives to the rim before hitting 3-pointers on consecutive trips downcourt in the final 2 minutes.
“The thing I was worried about was just staying out there and keeping up with everybody,” Irving said.
Before Friday, Butler coach Brad Stevens was the last man to coach against a Duke team with Irving.
“If he’s with no rust, he’s probably the top point guard chosen in the NBA Draft if he wants to go,” Steven said. “So he obviously makes that team, who’s already really loaded, like super-loaded.
“They were unbelievable with him.”
More than three months later, Hampton coach Edward Joyner Jr. had similar sentiments.
“He’s a lottery pick,” Joyner Jr. said.
And before that, he could be an NCAA champion.
(The AP contributed)
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.