It's safe to say Kyrie Irving has arrived
Freshman scores 31 and carries top-ranked Duke over No. 6 Michigan State
DURHAM, N.C. -- If Mike Krzyzewski were carving a Mount Rushmore of his best point guards, he'd take the chisel and nick out the faces of Tommy Amaker, Bobby Hurley and Jason Williams, players so good they proved themselves unique as soon as they set foot on the Duke campus.
Seven games into a season full of the promise of magic, Krzyzewski is reaching for his tools again.
The fourth face hasn't quite earned his way onto the mountain, but he is climbing there rapidly.
If November belonged to Kemba, Kyrie took first dibs on December.
Kyrie Irving dropped 31 on sixth-ranked Michigan State, overpowering a veteran Spartans backcourt and outshining his own All-American teammates. The 31 points rank second behind only J.J. Redick in the all-time freshman scoring records at Duke and left the Cameron Crazies oohing, aahing and chanting their hero's name after the No. 1 Blue Devils ousted a feisty Michigan State team 84-79.
As another star freshman -- the one named to the preseason All-American team and even as the early player of the year pick by some publications -- struggles just eight miles down the road, the natural question hovers over Tobacco Road: Did all those prognosticators pick the wrong state of North Carolina freshman?
No one at Duke is biting on the inevitable comparisons between Irving and Harrison Barnes, but suffice it to say those on the Durham sign of the line are happy with the freshman they've got.
"I haven't coached him like a freshman; I've coached him like a really good basketball player," Krzyzewski said. "And that means you've got to let him make mistakes, which he's done, but you also have to let him have some freedom. He's really good and he deserves to have the freedom to follow his instincts. We're changing the way we play because of him."
That really says all you need to know about the talent of Irving. A Hall of Fame coach -- a man whose name is etched not only on the court he works on, but also inked in the annals of basketball history -- has done nothing shy of redesigning his offense to suit the fancy of an 18-year-old.
Whereas Duke once parked its game in the 60s, the Blue Devils now are pushing the ball downcourt and using more ball screens, giving Irving the chance to make reads and consequently more plays.
It is akin to turning over the keys of a Cadillac to a first-time driver, dropping nothing less than the charge of stewarding a loaded team defending its national championship on the shoulders of a freshman.
"He's not a freshman," senior Nolan Smith laughed. "He plays like a veteran."
The unsung heroes in Irving's "sensational, scintillating, super" season, as Krzyzewski called it after he was forced to reach for adjectives, are Smith and Kyle Singler. Rather than feeling threatened by the impudence of a hotshot whippersnapper, the two seniors took Irving aside and told him they wanted and expected him to take over the game.
"It's inevitable with seniors that you're going to look up to them," Irving said. "So when they look to me, it's like, 'Wow.' It's kind of surprising. But it's their confidence in me that allows me to play the way I do."
Not every upperclassman would do that. It takes maturity and self-confidence, but it also takes players wise enough to recognize what is best for the team.
"We told him from day one that we needed him to be the other guy," Smith said. "We expect him to play this way and we need him to."
And with the way Irving plays, he has almost seamlessly transitioned into the triumvirate once formed by Singler, Smith and Jon Scheyer -- "We make a pretty good trio right now," Smith smiled.
On arguably the biggest stage of his career -- a matchup between the two teams considered the front-runners for a final dance in Houston -- Irving not only shot 8 of 12 from the floor, 13 of 16 from the line, dished out four assists, pulled down six rebounds and played 36 minutes, he played with an instinct that belied his years.
His were not 31 selfish points, but 31 points born of necessity. While Smith and Singler struggled in the first half, Irving simply filled the gap. He scored 18 of his 31 in the first 20 minutes while Smith spent eight minutes on the bench with foul trouble and Singler struggled on 2-of-9 shooting.
With Duke trailing 17-15 early, Irving went on a mini-tear, scoring six in a row and 11 of the Blue Devils' next 13.
Then in the second he picked his spots, scoring when it was available and dictating tempo and attracting attention when it wasn't.
Perhaps the most telling play for Irving came on one of the handful of buckets he missed. Up 69-64 in the final minutes, he drove to the basket. Michigan State, respecting his strength to the hoop, sagged everyone toward him, and when Draymond Green blocked Irving's shot, the rejection fell into the hands of a wide-open Singler.
That's a wide-open All-American.
"I know this much: I'm sick of seeing all these great guards," said MSU coach Tom Izzo, who watched Kemba Walker put up 30 against the Spartans in Maui.
Izzo doesn't leave Durham empty-handed, however. A week after watching the hoppers ditch the bandwagon after a loss to UConn, Michigan State surely has found more converts. The Spartans played in the most overwhelming of environments and never stopped coming. Twice Duke pushed the lead to double digits, poised -- it seemed -- to end the drama. Twice the Spartans came back.
Still waiting on Kalin Lucas to find his strength and conditioning, Michigan State has plenty of room to improve as the season and Lucas progresses. The first order of business: eliminating turnovers. The Spartans coughed it up 20 times -- already the third 20-plus-turnover game of the young season -- resulting in 28 points for the Blue Devils. And while some of them were results of Duke pressure, many were simply careless.
"I take more positives away than negatives," Izzo said. "We might be a team to be reckoned with down the road."
For now, though, Duke remains the team to be reckoned with, rolling through yet another test without a hiccup. The Blue Devils have steamrolled No. 4 (Kansas State) and punched out No. 6 (Michigan State), appearing so much better than most everyone else that already people are scanning the schedule, wondering if Duke will lose.
Krzyzewski doesn't believe his team will go undefeated, arguing that a team has to be older than the one he has to do something that hasn't been done in 34 years.
Of course, sometimes youth is a lie. Sometimes a player comes along who separates himself so smoothly and so quickly that it doesn't matter what his birth certificate says.
Krzyzewski knows that. He's seen it before, in the faces of his Mount Rushmore.
And he knows when it's time to make room for another.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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