It's been almost three months since one of the most fascinating freshmen to hit the college hoops scene went down with what seemed to be an innocuous toe injury against Butler on December 4.
Since then, speculation has been rampant about Kyrie Irving's return to the No. 1 Blue Devils. Will he be back at all? Even if he is healthy, will he sit in favor of his NBA draft status (since he's currently projected as a top three pick.)? If he does come back, when will it be?
Speculation out of Durham is that Irving may be ready make his return during or even before the ACC Tournament. The Duke program released a video this week showing Kyrie going through some intensive rehab, which included putting some serious pressure on that famous right toe.
If (or when, to many Duke fans) Irving makes his return debut, what impact will it have on the top-ranked Devils? That's the question many NCAA Tournament prognosticators have on their minds.
Some would argue Irving was the best freshman—and one of the top five all-around players—in the country before his injury. His scintillating 31-point performance against Michigan State in early December put everyone on notice that he is a special player. He averaged just over 17 points per game in eight appearances for the Blue Devils while dishing out five assists per game. Duke could definitely use his points and passing abilities heading into March Madness.
But there's the flipside to consider. Ever since (and largely because) Irving went down with his toe injury, Nolan Smith has been playing like a man on fire. The whole nation witnessed how he torched North Carolina for 34 points (22 of them in the second half), leading his team to one of the most amazing comebacks in the rivalry's history. He's capable of dropping 30 on any team on any given night. But how will that, and the team's chemistry, change when Irving comes back?
Duke's been here before, though. In 2001, Carlos Boozer went down with a broken foot late in the ACC season, only to come back for the NCAA Tournament and help the Blue Devils to their third national championship. Elton Brand broke his foot in December of 1998, missed six weeks of action, then came back to help Duke beat Carolina once again and lead the Devils to a berth in the national title game against UConn in 1999.
Even without Irving, Duke has to be considered a favorite to grab a No. 1 seed in just a few weeks on Selection Sunday. But with him, the Blue Devils could be the prohibitive favorite to win the whole thing and become the first back-to-back national champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007.
And so, Duke fans remain with Kyrie, "opTOEmistic."
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