He stood alone near midcourt at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, bouncing a ball and staring at the NCAA logo emblazoned on the floor. While his Duke teammates warmed up for the second half against Hampton by shooting balls at the basket, Kyrie Irving was lost in his own world, his own thoughts, visualizing what he would do in the final 20 minutes of the Blue Devils' opening game in the NCAA tournament.
He then took a few steps forward and unleashed a 30-foot jumper. Swish. Then, in rapid fire, he attempted five shots between 22 and 27 feet; each ball tickled the bottom of the net. Irving had looked uncomfortable and out of sorts during the first half against Hampton -- he was, after all, playing for the first time since he tore ligaments in his right big toe against Butler on Dec. 4 -- but now, as he kept taking and making warmup shots, he appeared at ease and in rhythm, as if the feel of the game was suddenly coming back to him with every long-range rainbow he launched.
"I was nervous when I got out there in the first half," Irving said. "I was pressing and trying too hard. You can't play basketball that way. But then in the second half, I don't know, I just started to feel good."
Yes he did, and in the process the 18-year-old freshman displayed why he could very well be the biggest X-factor in this NCAA tournament. Though it had been over three months since he was last in a game, Irving was clearly the best player on the floor in the second half of what was essentially a glorified scrimmage for Duke -- the East region's top seed throttled Hampton 87-45. Playing 13 of the final 20 minutes, Irving scored 12 points in the second half, grabbed three rebounds, and dished out one assist. He didn't say it, but he sure looked 100 percent recovered from his toe injury.
"Kyrie is working his way back into the flow," Duke guard Seth Curry said. "He needs to get his legs back a little bit, but playing a lot of minutes tonight will help that. Once he got the jitters out, it was like he hadn't missed a beat, which is going to be huge for us moving forward."
Before he was hurt in their eighth game, Irving led the Blue Devils in scoring (17.4 points per game) and was the team's most explosive playmaker. How gifted is he? If he decides to turn pro after this season -- and most observers believe he will -- Irving could be the top overall pick, according to several NBA scouts.
Irving flashed that tantalizing potential late against Hampton. With 5:30 left, Irving grabbed a defensive rebound and turned up the court. Slicing in from the right wing, he glided between two Hampton defenders and laid the ball in off the backboard, eliciting ohhhhhs from the crowd and prompting Jim Nantz, who was calling the game for CBS and sitting right in front of me, to throw his arms up in the air. Why was Nantz so animated? Because that single full-court drive to the rim showed the kind of impact Irving could have on this tournament.
"Kyrie got real comfortable and it was easy for him to slide right back into the flow," said Blue Devils backup guard Tyler Thornton. "He's a baller who likes to get out there and run, and everyone on this team likes to do that, so it wasn't an adjustment for the rest of us having him out there. It was actually a lot of fun."
Twenty minutes after the lopsided win, Irving sat on a stool in the Duke locker room, surrounded by about 20 reporters. Cleary, he was the big story coming out of this game. Yet listening to his teammates gush about how he's been playing in practice in recent days -- "You haven't seen anything yet," said Thornton -- you got the feeling Friday's performance by Irving was merely a preview of things to come.