Kyrie Irving did not play in a single ACC game this season. Weird to think about, isn't it? When Kyrie Irving's season was halted thanks to a terrible injury to his toe that included both ligament and bone damage, Duke changed significantly. It feels like the team that played with Irving in the beginning of the season is not even close to being the same team as the one who went through the ACC season and the ACC tournament so far. Sure, Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, the Plumlee brothers, and everyone else is still there, but it still feels like a completely different team. That different team will have to continue to do the job for Duke on Sunday against North Carolina, but Irving's presence on the bench and impending comeback gets most college basketball fans buzzing. He participated in warm-ups again today, fueling rampant speculation about his return. Here's the proof:
Love or hate Duke (yes, I'm aware 90% of you probably hate them), it's hard not to love the way they were playing when Irving was healthy. Even though Duke are the defending NCAA champions, anyone would be hard pressed to find a non-Dukie who thinks that they were the best team last year. Even if they were, they were the best team because they were so good at hiding their weaknesses and emphasizing their strengths. Sure, Duke have had some good teams over the last decade, but they last time they had a truly dynamic team was 2001. That is, until this year.
Of course, Duke's dynamism only lasted as long as Irving was healthy. Once Irving went down, we had the same old Blue Devils once again. Sure, Nolan Smith could always be counted on for great games and the team continued to play good defense and rebound well, but they were pretty static offensively outside of Smith. Duke became overly reliant on Kyle Singler and the three-ball. Because Singler, Andre Dawkins, and Seth Curry are very good basketball players, this wasn't all bad. Still, they haven't looked like a truly elite team since Irving went down, and when Duke doesn't have two of those three players on their game, they get exposed.
With Irving, Duke was a different team. They were possibly better than the 2001 team. Really, they were that good, and Irving made that much of a difference. Irving made Duke dangerous on the break and his dribble penetration created open looks for his teammates. For the first eight games of the season, they were almost inarguably the best team in the country. They could play any style of basketball, at any pace, against any team. And the reason they could do all of that was Irving.
The way that Duke has played in Irving's absence is very telling, in both good ways and bad. On one hand, Duke are currently a one-dimensional team who plays at one pace and who is over-reliant on their three-point shooting. On the other hand, they're still a really good team. How many teams in the country are deep and talented enough that they could contend for their league's regular season title if their best player went down? And make no mistake; Irving is Duke's best player, with no disrespect intended to the fantastic Nolan Smith.
Kyrie Irving won't play against UNC on Sunday, but it seems increasingly likely that he'll make some appearances once the real March Madness hits. If he's even 75%, Duke might be propelled to ‘title favorite' status. He does that much to make Duke a better team.