When freshman point guard Kyrie Irving went down with a toe injury on December 4, Duke was 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Today the top-ranked Blue Devils are 10-0, having blown first Bradley and then Saint Louis off the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium by a combined score of 167-95. Even without Irving, life goes on, right?
Certainly there are few teams in the country better equipped to lose their starting point guard. In Irving's absence, senior Nolan Smith has taken on the responsibility of running the offense and, clearly, the team has continued to score points virtually at will. By the same token sophomores Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry now figure to see more minutes, and together the two players have made 52 percent of their threes this season. Oh, and by the way this defense is outstanding, having held opponents to 43 percent shooting on their twos.
In other words, even without Kyrie Irving, Duke is plainly a force to be reckoned with. In fact subtract Irving from the equation entirely and it's not inconceivable that Mike Krzyzewski could still have the best team in the country.
That doesn't mean Irving won't be missed, however. So if you're a glass-half-empty Duke fan who insists upon worrying about your No. 1-ranked 10-0 defending national champions, I've got your back. Here are the reasons you're right to be at least a little worried:
Losing your best player is never a good thing.
It may seem presumptuous, or at least a little premature, to say that Irving is/was Duke's best player. After all, Kyle Singler was named a preseason first-team All-American, and we've seen that Smith is having an outstanding year. True, but what Irving was able to accomplish in the 439 personal possessions that he played earned him the proverbial "best player on the best team" label. While recording more than enough assists to qualify as a "true" point guard, Irving additionally functioned something like a dual-threat wing from the field, draining 59 percent of his twos and 45 percent of his threes. Duke certainly isn't lacking for players who are efficient on offense, but no one combined efficiency and workload the way Irving did. His absence leaves a hole, even on a No. 1-ranked team.
At some point Duke will actually (gasp!) miss some threes.
While Coach K's team isn't about to suddenly turn into Syracuse in terms of perimeter inaccuracy, forecasting a correction in the Blue Devils' red-hot 44 percent three-point shooting hardly constitutes going out on a limb. Take Dawkins. Last year he made 20 of his first 36 threes before apparently hitting the freshman wall. Toss out the first seven games of last season and Dawkins was a 27 percent three-point shooter. Not that the same thing's going to occur this year, of course. But the 54 percent three-point shooting we've seen so far this year from Dawkins would be remarkable for anyone, much less a player whose career free throw percentage is in the mid-70's. Expect Duke's percentage of missed threes to climb.
All of which would of course be just as true if Irving were healthy and playing. But when the game arrives where the Devils are cold from outside, they'll need another way to score points. And no Duke player was able to translate possessions into made free throws like Irving, who drew more than six fouls for every 40 minutes he played and shot 90 percent at the line.
Irving showed hints of being an asset on both sides of the ball.
When talking about a freshman point guard on a one-and-done trajectory, it's natural to assume that that whatever value he adds on offense must be diminished, at least a little, by his shortcomings on defense. After all, these McDonald's All-American guards didn't get to where they are by maintaining a sound defensive stance, right? Maybe not, but in Irving's case the natural assumption needs at least a partial qualification. He may not be the second coming of Ronald Nored, but among Blue Devils who see regular playing time Irving did post a steal rate that was second only to Curry's. So far this season Duke's opponents have turned the ball over on one out of every four possessions. Irving helped that along, and a Blue Devil backcourt that's lost some depth may lose some defensive energy over the course of the season.
Take it from Coach K: Duke's offense was a different animal with Irving.
Of all the things I've read about the Blue Devils in the new post-Irving era, I think Krzyzewski captured the situation best when he said that prior to the freshman's injury, "We were playing offense with two point guards. It was a beautiful thing." Precisely. Look at it from the perspective of an opposing defense. In Irving and Smith, Duke had two players on the floor at the same time who could each be counted on to successfully carry out the correct decision, be it a shot, a drive, or a pass to the likes of Singler, Dawkins, or each other. It's tough enough to defend a team that has one of those players. When there are two, your offense is in some pretty rarefied air.
Duke is still Duke, of course. They'll continue to win games and look really impressive. Right now there's no telling when or even if Irving is coming back -- in the meantime the Blue Devils show no signs of struggling. But how many games would this team would win with Irving? How impressive would they look? My sense is the answers to those questions are "an awful lot" and "incredibly."
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John often waxes omniscient about imaginary scenarios on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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