Last Season's Dynamic Freshman (Kyrie Irving):
Last season was often an up-and-down roller coaster ride for fans of the Duke men's basketball team. That certainly could have been predicted.
As a freshman, Kyrie Irving, had been called upon at the beginning of his career to lead the team as the primary ball-handler.
The major weakness of the Blue Devils entering the 2010 season was at the point guard position, due to the graduation of All-American Jon Scheyer. As a four-time letter winner under Coach K, Scheyer had a breakthrough year in his senior season, just beaten out by Maryland's Greivis Vasquez for ACC Player of the Year.
While it was certain that Irving had the talent and athleticism to be successful in his first season in Durham, it was also considered to be a major risk taken by Coach K to hand the majority of the offensive calls over to a freshman.
Though it was uncertain how long it would take for the highly-touted recruit to fit into Duke's system, once inserted into the starting line-up for his first collegiate game against Princeton, it was certain a star was born.
Finishing the game with 17 points, nine assists and four rebounds, as well as becoming the first freshman to start a season as Duke's point guard since Jason Williams in 1999, Irving had garnered his role as the new face of the Blue Devil's program.
Though his season was cut short by a foot injury in the eighth game of the season (a 2009 NCAA Championship game rematch with Butler), Irving still remained a fan favorite. As each new detail about his injury was greatly publicized through the media, much of the attention was taken off the present Duke team and more on the probable return of the talented newcomer.
While this may have been a negative aspect for many teams in the country, seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler cherished their new roles as the main playmakers for the team in the absence of Irving. Smith in particular took his game to heights that no Duke fan in the country could have fathomed after such a devastating injury to a key player.
Smith took over primary ball-handling responsibilities and became one of the most potent offensive players in the country. Singler, although extremely talented in his own right, seemed to fade as the season progressed, taking a backseat as the magical season of his fellow senior continued.
Following tough losses to Virginia Tech and North Carolina to close out the season, it was unclear if the Blue Devils had what it took to repeat as National Champions. It was also unclear if Irving would return in time to help Duke compete for the 2011 ACC Championships in Greensboro.
Although Kyrie wasn't able to participate in the ACC Tournament, he became a vital member of the bench, consistently lifting the spirits of his teammates.
The script had been written, and after winning their opening round game against Maryland and extracting revenge against Virginia Tech in the tournament semifinals, Duke was prepared to battle arch-rival UNC in the ACC tile game.
A game-high 20 points for Nolan Smith, as well as serious contributions off the bench from Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly, led the Blue Devils to a record 19th ACC Championship, defeating the Tar Heels 75-58 after holding the lead the entire 40 minutes.
Duke was then granted a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and rather than the media quizzing the players about repeating, the focus switched over to Kyrie Irving—most notably his foot. After much speculation by a number of different sources, Kyrie was officially cleared by his doctors to play, much to the surprise of Blue Devil fans.
Going into Duke's first round game against Hampton, no one knew what to aspect from Irving after he had been out of the line-up since December. The doubters became believers, however, as Kyrie scored 14 points in a very successful return.
The Blue Devils outlasted Michigan in the second round, 73-71, to advance to the 2011 NCAA Sweet Sixteen. It was at that point in the tournament that things slowly began to fall apart for the defending champions.
After taking a six-point lead over the Arizona Wildcats in the Round of 16, Derrick Williams, as well as the uncertainty between Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving at the point guard position, led Arizona to a 93-77 beatdown of the Blue Devils.
Following the game, it was a major concern to many Duke fans if Kyrie Irving was, in fact, going to be a one-and-done college player. After a month of speculation, as well as many tactics performed by the Blue Devil faithful to get Kyrie to stay for his sophomore season, he addressed the public, stating:
"I want to thank the entire staff at Duke, especially the coaches. It was a great experience playing for Coach K. He taught me a lot about the game. Even when I was hurt, I learned a lot....This was a special year for me. I love everything about Duke and I'm going to miss it." (Associated Press)
While this may have left Duke fans angry and upset, it certainly worked out for Kyrie—he was selected with the No. 1 draft pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA lottery in June.
Now, in the absence of Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, which player is prepared to become the face of a Blue Devil program that, along with taking on the role, brings about immense pressure? Look no further than another highly-touted recruit from Duke's incoming freshman class: Austin Rivers.
This Season's Dynamic Freshman (Austin Rivers):
Rivers, a 6'4", 190 pound shooting guard and the son of current Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, was named the Gatorade Player of the Year from Florida. He averaged 28.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and two steals per game, and led Winter Park High School (28-5) to its second straight Class 6A championship.
Austin compiled a number of different accolades during his senior season, being named a McDonald's All-American, a Jordan Brand All-American and also competing in the Nike Hoop Summit for the USA, amongst other competitions.
Once a verbal commit to the University of Florida, Austin decided to withdraw his commitment from the Gators and re-open his recruitment before the start of his senior season. It was at that point that Duke again went after the talented guard, and after months of consideration, Rivers committed to the Blue Devils on September 30, 2010.
Considered a winner in every sense of the word, Rivers is a talented and versatile player that can play both the shooting guard and point guard positions. Plus, with Irving leaving for the NBA after just one season, the battle for primary ball-handling duties could get very interesting.
Amongst those on the Duke roster that could potentially follow in the footsteps of Irving are Rivers, fellow freshman Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Tyler Thornton.
The more natural point guards of the four, Cook and Thornton, are players that would rather look for open teammates than look to knock down shots. Rivers and Curry, on the other hand, possess very similar game styles, and each will be offensive weapons on a guard-filled roster for Duke.
Andre Dawkins, also a member of the Fearless-Five guards for Coach K next season, is more of a shooting specialist. He will primarily be used to create space in the paint, spending most of his time outside the three-point arc—where he's a lethal shooter if open.
While each of the guards will be crucial to Duke's success next year, as well as the front court tandem of Miles, Mason and Marshall Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, Michael Gbinije, Alex Murphy and Josh Hairston, it is Rivers who will be key for the Blue Devils next season.
As many Duke fans witnessed last year, when Kyrie Irving was healthy, no one in the country could stop him. The same will go for Rivers next season, as his speed, athleticism and shooting prowess will be major hurdles for any team or player to consistently shut him down.
The shear presence of Austin Rivers on the court will open up the paint for the Plumlee brothers to get easy looks, will leave sharp-shooters like Dawkins and Curry open on the wings to knock down three-pointers and will give Duke a greater sense of offensive fire power when he's confident and composed.
If Rivers lives up to the hype, and it's almost a certainty that he will, then Blue Devil fans everywhere should look forward to a second consecutive season with one of the most explosive and dynamic basketball players in the country on the roster.
The rest of the college basketball landscape should take notice: Austin Rivers is the new face of the Blue Devils!
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