As you’re no doubt aware, we’ve had our cadre of correspondents traveling around the country to each of the eight NCAA sites over the weekend. We’ve asked the guys to produce a weekend diary of the games they witnessed including analysis, commentary and opinion concerning the sights and sounds at their venues. Our hope is that the diaries will give you insights into the games that you may not have otherwise had from watching them on television or catching the highlights package afterward. Let us know how we do…
Note: for all of the opening weekend diaries, click here.
Location: Charlotte, NC
Teams: Duke, Michigan, North Carolina, Washington
Date: 20 March 2011
Correspondent: Frank Barrows
I spent the weekend covering the NCAA tournament games in Charlotte. When I trudged out of the arena Sunday night, my briefcase bulging with hundreds of pieces of paper — stat sheets, team brochures, transcripts of interviews, rosters, etc. — that I had acquired over four days, here’s what I was thinking about:
* A year ago, Kyrie Irving and Harrison Barnes were two of the country’s very top high school basketball players, Nos. 1 and 2 or Nos. 2 and 1 in the eyes of many, excepting the Jared Sullinger partisans. However, both had rocky starts to their college careers. After eight excellent games for Duke, Irving injured a ligament in his right big right toe and was put in a cast. From the outset, Barnes shot poorly, as if he hadn’t worked on his jumper for weeks before enrolling at North Carolina, and, worse, he played with neither assertiveness nor confidence. The only consolation for Blue Devils’ fans who were mourning the loss of Irving was that Barnes, who had famously and surprisingly chosen North Carolina over Duke in a photo-finish announcement on national televison, was playing so badly. They drowned their sorrows in schadenfreude.
Now, unimaginable as it was at the end of December, Irving and Barnes are central figures, perhaps their team’s central figures, in the week of the Sweet Sixteen. Irving, a 6’2 point guard, played for the first time in months in the Charlotte NCAA rounds and has recaptured his form nearly as quickly as his slashingly acrobatic drives carry him from beyond the key to the rim. In total, in the two games, he was on the court for 41 minutes, scoring 25 points and sinking all but one of 14 free throws. He hit the game-winning basket with 19.3 seconds left as Duke downed Michigan 73-71 Sunday, a close-in driving bank shot as he slipped along the baseline with the Blue Devils leading by just one. He appeared to suffer no lingering effects, physical or psychological, from his injury. He was more than fit as a fiddle; he looked like a Stradivarius.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had lots to say about Irving. Listen to some remarks from his post-game interview: “We wouldn’t be going forward if he didn’t play. … Kyrie is a heck of a pentrator. … If he plays the whole year, he might be the best player in college basketball. … I think a real big reason why we won today is that he got 20 in (the Hampton game). … You’ve got to get back on stage. I don’t care how much you practice, you got to get back on stage and then do your dancing and singing or whatever … in front of people … We now know that Kyrie will play, and he can play extended minutes. We knew he could play; we didn’t know rusty he would be. … He kept getting better, hit the big shot, and we know that he wants to be there with pressure. That’s a big thing, going forward.”
Barnes, a 6’8 forward, has improved steadily over the course of the season. He started taking important shots in the middle of January, then began making them more and more consistently and spectacularly, and, recently, peaked with such demonstrations as a 40-point showing in the ACC tournament against Clemson and a 24-point-and-16 rebound effort versus Long Island in the Tar Heels’ second-round NCAA matchup. His field-goal percentage, once as low as a good batting average, is now up to 42.3 and rising. The tentativeness that marked his game early in the season is gone, replaced by something that is as far short of swagger as it is well above hesitancy. For example, with North Carolina ahead of Washington 84-80, he missed a jump shot and a drive with in a few seconds; in December he wouldn’t have attempted the second after missing the first.
Barnes, averaging a team-leading 15.5 points, is the best three-point shooter in the Tar Heels’ starting lineup, and because outside scoring is their weakness, he is indispensably vital. Irving, despite the presence of the always remarkable Nolan Smith and the often remarkable Kyle Singler, is, as Krzyzewski pointed out, a guy who wants the ball in the waning minutes. What’s more, even if he continues as a substitute, he gives the Blue Devils a depth they have been lacking for months. Plus, as his team’s most instinctive playmaker, he can help overcome the late-game problems Duke encountered with Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone, difficulties that surely have been replayed on tape in the offices of every coach who might face the Blue Devils the rest of the way. For Irving and Barnes, that rest of the way, their path to the Final Four, is growing shorter and shorter.