Duke's Kyrie Irving to play in opener
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke freshman guard Kyrie Irving spent Thursday afternoon hawking teammate Nolan Smith defensively in practice. He also participated in a spirited drill and had no issues cutting and finishing at the rim.
If you hadn't been paying attention, you would never have known that Irving hasn't played for the Blue Devils since being injured on Dec. 4.
How that translates on the court for Duke, the top seed in the West Regional of the NCAA tournament, will be known when the Blue Devils play No. 16 Hampton at the Time Warner Cable Arena at around 3 p.m. ET Friday afternoon.
Irving said Thursday he was told he will play Friday, likely coming off the bench.
"This is a big step for me and one of the biggest decisions of my life," said Irving, who prior to being hurt was leading the Blue Devils in scoring at 17.4 points a game, including 31 points in a win over Michigan State.
Irving said the decision to play was made Wednesday night after he practiced for the past two days -- the first time he has had contact since a baseline drive against Butler at the IZOD Arena resulted in him tearing the ligaments below his right toe. Irving is projected to be a top three NBA draft pick. So, playing in the NCAA tournament had to be a careful decision.
Irving said that surgery was discussed but the Duke medical team opted for putting his toe in a cast and then a boot before he underwent strenuous strengthening exercises. Irving said he has an extra sesamoid bone in his right toe, one more than he has in his left toe. This was discovered after the injury.
"The ligaments tore and they take awhile to grow back," Irving said. "I had trust in the [Duke] medical staff and my father has trust in me. I wouldn't go out there if I wasn't ready to play."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski isn't about to commit to minutes. Krzyzewski applauded the work of the Duke medical staff to get Irving ready. He said the decision was collectively made.
"If I wasn't sure that he could play then I wouldn't play him," Krzyzewski said.
Irving said he has no trepidation about playing on his once-injured toe. He said he started running on it three weeks ago.
"I have complete confidence in my toe and if I didn't I wouldn't be out there," Irving said. "The NCAA tournament is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Nothing is guaranteed. I want to play on the big stage. I want to help my teammates as much as I can."
Irving said his decision to play was made by him and his family. A week ago, Irving went through pregame warm-ups prior to Duke's quarterfinal ACC tournament game against Maryland. But he did not wear his uniform for the game.
Video: Kyrie Irving Set to Play
Andy Katz talks with Duke's Kyrie Irving about being healthy enough to play in the NCAA tournament. Blog
"I wasn't ready last week at all," Irving said. "My confidence level wasn't there yet. I had to get out and practice with the guys."
Irving said he will play with a sneaker that has two shanks -- supportive structures between the outer and inner sole -- and an orthotic to prevent his toe from bending back.
"I need that to play," Irving said. "I'll have that for the rest of my life."
If the Blue Devils were going to make this move then it made sense to play Irving prior to the first game of the NCAA tournament. But Irving said he would have played, no matter what point in the NCAAs he was ready.
"I watched Duke win it all last year and it made me want to be in the NCAAs even more," Irving said. "I've always dreamt of playing in the NCAA tournament. If I had the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament then I was going to do it.
"The most important thing was getting healthy and if that came at the cost of missing the whole season then it wasn't going to happen," Irving said. "We didn't have a timetable for the injury. It feels like I'm learning how to ride a bike again. I'm excited to be out on the court again."
And no one associated with Duke seems to be worried about Irving taking away anything from Smith, the ACC Player of the Year.
"Whoever has a chance to bring it up," Krzyzewski said. "When and Nolan played together, it didn't matter who brought the ball up. But defensively he would be on the ball."
Smith said Irving is ready to play.
"He is very eager," Smith said. "Offensively he is going to give us more firepower. It's a huge lift to have a great teammate come back. He has been such a great teammate. He looked good. He is not in great shape from what he was doing on the floor but it looks like his skills are still there."
Andy Katz is a senior college basketball writer for ESPN.com.