This is what you call a game changer.
Mike Krzyzewski’s announcement that “there’s a chance” Duke freshman guard Kyrie Irving will play in the NCAA tournament set off a wave of activity before the event begins in earnest Thursday.
The Devils are already a No. 1 seed and the pick to win by some. But Irving – who hasn’t played since injuring his toe on Dec. 4 vs. Butler – gives them a chance to be more than just a contender alongside Ohio State and Kansas. It might make them the team to beat.
“If he can find his comfort zone on the court, they’re completely different. They’re near to being unguardable,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin told Jeff Goodman.
Martin should know. Irving torched the Wildcats for 17 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals during an 82-68 win back in November. If he’s even close to that, it’s bad news for the rest of the field.
[kml_flashembed movie=”http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/33399756?launch=4210897″ width=”420″ height=”245″ allowFullscreen=”true” /]
Some raised concerns about chemistry – is Irving mucking Duke’s established flow? – and Irving’s readiness. Both can be addressed here.
Duke (30-4) has done well by running its offense through All-American guard Nolan Smith, who isn’t a natural point guard like Irving, but is hardly a hindrance. By all accounts, he’s incredibly popular with his teammates and not a “me-first” type of player. Team chemistry won’t be a problem.
“All the guys, if he’s able to play, would welcome him back,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s been the best guy ever on a sideline with his teammates. It’d be different if he wasn’t that way. I think that would be a smooth transition, and if we’re fortunate enough to win, and he’s able to play, then you get more accustomed to it.”
And is Irving healthy enough to make a difference? That depends on what exactly his role is. He almost certainly won’t be the lead guard who was averaging 17.4 points per game before his injury. He’s not in game shape and would be a little rusty.
Coach K said Irving probably won’t start when he returns (which wouldn’t be until Sunday at the earliest), which means he’d probably play the same role as Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins do now – instant offense off the bench.
His teammates also aren’t concerned.
“Personally, I don’t think he’s missed a beat,” Duke senior Kyle Singler said after Tuesday’s practice. “He’s done a great job rehabbing. He’s a little bit out of shape, but that’s to be expected.”
Duke opened the week as one of the three teams to beat in oddsmakers’ eyes. Irving’s return hasn’t moved the betting line as of yet – the Devils are still even with Kansas and just behind Ohio State – but that’s only because no one’s seen him play yet.
If there’s ever been a year to have revamped Final Four picks before the teams hit Houston, this is it.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.