The "X" factor remaining in the NCAA Tournament is undoubtedly Kyrie Irving.
The freshman guard returned to the Duke lineup last weekend after sitting out the final 26 games of the regular season with a foot injury and contributed to the Blue Devils' victories over Hampton and Michigan in the second and third rounds at Charlotte. Irving had 14 points in 20 minutes against Hampton and 11 points in 21 minutes against Michigan.
Irving was considered one of the top two players in this year's freshman class coming into the season along with North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes. While Ohio State's Jared Sullinger has gone on to be the consensus Freshman of the Year, Irving likely would have been a strong candidate had he stayed healthy as he has averaged 16.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 27.2 minutes in the 10 games in which he has played. Irving also has terrific tempo-free stats with a 127.6 offensive rating, a 60.7 effective field goal percentage, a 69.2 true shooting percentage and a 30.3 assist rate.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski originally planned to play Irving sparingly in the NCAAs but would up extending his minutes off the bench last weekend because he played so well. Krzyzewski says he will resist the urge to start Irving on Thursday night when top-seeded Duke (32-4) faces Arizona (29-7) in a West Region semifinal at Anaheim. San Diego State (34-2) and Connecticut (28-9) meet in the other semi.
"There are not many guys like Irving, so it's not like bringing a guy back from injury," Krzyzewski said. "It's bringing a great talent back from a very serious injury, and a great kid. I like having the opportunity to do that. Really, I didn't think there was any way he was coming back. He made incredible progress over the last few weeks. I don't really think there is any pitfall in bringing him back. He makes us better."
Krzyzewski admits he might be hard pressed to keep Irving out of the lineup if Duke advances to the Final Four, saying "we'll see how that might evolve."
The injury to Irving caused Krzyzewski to juggle his lineup throughout the season in finding someone to join seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith on the perimeter, a trio he hoped would offset a shaky frontcourt. Sophomore guard Seth Curry, in his first season since transferring from Liberty, was one of the beneficiaries as he has averaged 25.4 minutes a game. Freshman guard Tyler Thornton would have rarely gotten off the bench if Irving had stayed healthy but instead is averaging 10.0 minutes.
Duke was able to adjust on the fly. Though the Blue Devils finished second in the ACC, they bounced back to beat regular-season champion North Carolina in the championship game of the conference tournament.
"What happened is we practiced for two months, played eight games playing a certain way, and when you have a strength in that strong perimeter, you don't have to show your weaknesses," Krzyzewski said. "As soon as he went down, our weaknesses were exposed and we didn't have the two months to correct those weaknesses. So we basically started our preseason in the middle of December. As a result kids had to grow, like Seth Curry. He wasn't playing that well (after Irving's injury) but now he's playing real well. Our big guys had to learn to screen more off the ball to get guys open on the ball. It's been a matter of growth and how we fit together."
Big East Disappoints, but Not Marquette
The Big East has taken a beating in the NCAA Tournament. Just two of the conference's record 11 entrants remain following two rounds.
That Marquette is one of the two Big East teams remaining along with Connecticut along is quite the surprise. The Golden Eagles were considered the weakest of the 11 Big East teams who got bids as evidenced by getting a No. 11 seed in the East Region.
Yet Marquette (22-14) will face North Carolina (28-7) on Friday night in the regional semifinals at Newark after knocking off Xavier and Syracuse last weekend in the second and third rounds at Cleveland. The other semi is a matchup between No. 1 overall seed Ohio State (32-4) and Kentucky (27-8).
What sets Marquette apart from most of the teams in the six power conference is that it relies heavily on junior college transfers. The three leading scorers in the upset of Syracuse all spent time in the juco ranks: senior wing Jimmy Butler, junior guard Darius Johnson-Odom and junior forward Jae Crowder.
"Coming out of juco, a lot of players, they're tough," Johnson-Odom said. "They come out from a small school, they wasn't heavily recruited and they want to show the world like why they wasn't recruited. And guys like Jae, Jimmy, Joe (Fulce) and Dwight (Buycks), they put their heart and soul into becoming great basketball players. And when you work as hard as we do, I think it's going to come out in the end."
Marquette coach Buzz Williams went to a junior college. Thus he understands what juco players can add to his programs without worrying about the negative stereotypes that seem to be part and parcel with those who play at that level.
"So much is made of where our kids went to school prior to arrival at Marquette," Williams said. "I think the story that should be written is the resolve of who they are as competitors and the character of who they are as people. I kind of have an edge like 'let's not just completely stereotype that it's just a rag-tag group of jucos,' because I'm right in that group, too, except I never went to a Division I school. The first time I was ever on a Division I campus was when I was employed."
History Doesn't Repeat Itself for Jayhawks
Kansas admittedly played tight in last year's NCAA Tournament as it entered as the No. 1 overall seed but was upset by Northern Iowa in the second round.
When the Jayhawks got out of the gate slowly in its second-round victory against Boston University last week at Tulsa, leading just 33-29 at halftime, coach Bill Self gave his team a lecture at intermission. It wasn't a chewing out, just a history lesson.
"We've talked a lot about us making sure that this is the reward for their efforts all year long, and you have to enjoy it," Self said. "Don't look back and say, 'What if? Why didn't we do this and why didn't we do that?' Let's just enjoy it. It didn't look like we were having that much fun the first half. I thought we were playing a little tight, but I do think we have a pretty loose group."
Kansas pulled away from a 72-53 victory over the Terriers then beat Illinois 73-59 in the third round. Kansas (34-2), seeded first in the Southwest, will meet Richmond (29-7) in a regional semifinal on Friday night in San Antonio while Florida State (23-10) and Virginia Commonwealth (26-11) face off in the other half of the doubleheader.
Fredette Foremost on Gators' Minds
Florida (28-7) faces Brigham Young (32-4) in one of the Southeast Region semifinals Thursday night at New Orleans. Pardon the Gators if they work right up until tipoff trying to figure out a way to stop Cougars senior guard Jimmer Fredette.
Fredette burned Florida for 37 points in a first-round win in last year's NCAAs, which represented his coming-out party on a national level. He has also played well in the Cougars' two games in this year's tournament, scoring 32 points and dishing out seven assists in a 66-58 victory over Wofford in the second round then notching 34 points and six rebounds in an 89-67 dismantling of Gonzaga in the third round at Denver.
While Brigham Young will go ultimately as far as Fredette will take it, the Cougars showed in the victory over Gonzaga that they are more than a one-man team. Jackson Emery, another senior guard, had 16 points and three steals and was one of four Cougars to score in double figures.
"I take a lot of pride in setting the tone," Emery said. "Jimmer is going to demand so much attention because of the player he is. But the most important thing is that his supporting case hit shots."
The other Southeast semifinal matchup is Butler (25-9) versus Wisconsin (25-8).
Latest Look at the Coaching Rumor Mill
Tennessee: Pitt's Jamie Dixon is the primary target but he would want the same kind of long-term deal that Tom Crean received from Indiana--10 years--to clean up Bruce Pearl's mess. There is a lot of sentiment within the state for Belmont coach Rick Byrd to get the job but Tennessee apparently has its sights set higher with such names as Villanova's Jay Wright, Texas A&M's Mark Turgeon, Minnesota's Tubby Smith and Baylor's Scott Drew being bandied about.
Missouri: Marquette's Williams is at the top of the list that also figures to include North Texas' Johnny Jones and Missouri State's Cuonzo Martin.
Georgia Tech: Wichita State's Gregg Marshall is getting the most speculation here, though Richmond's Chris Mooney and VCU's Shaka Smart could also be pursued.
North Carolina State: Smart is also expected to get strong consideration here now that Arizona's Sean Miller has indicated he has no interest in coming to Raleigh.
Wyoming: Old Dominion's Blaine Taylor appears to be at the top of the wish list here that also includes Murray State's Billy Kennedy, Utah State's Stew Morrill and Montana's Wayne Tinkle.
Fresno State: Tinkle could land here but there is some thought that Pearl might wind up in raisin country, far enough away from Knoxville to rebuild his career.
Bradley: Oral Roberts' Sean Sutton is said to be the main target while Gonzaga assistant coach Ray Giacoletti has also been interviewed.
Fairfield: Former St. John's coach Norm Roberts and Vermont's Mike Lonergan are in the mix.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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