Goodman: Irving Makes Duke The Favorite

Fox Sports' Jeff Goodman says if Kyrie Irving is healthy, Duke becomes his pick to defend the NCAA Championship.

Kyrie Irving has sat out three months with a serious toe injury, but he may be ready to put on his dancing shoes.

Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said that the star freshman point guard could play on Friday against Hampton in their NCAA tournament opener.

"There is a chance he would play, but the decision won't be made for a few days," Krzyzewski said during Tuesday's news conference.

A source close to the situation said that, barring a significant setback, Irving will return to the court this weekend after missing the past 26 games.

Irving's presence will change the entire complexion of the NCAA tournament.

The 6-foot-2 point guard was one of the nation's elite players over the first eight games of the season and is the front-runner, according to numerous NBA executives, to be taken with the No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA draft.

He's a difference-maker.

No, he's the difference-maker.

"If he can find his comfort zone on the court," said Kansas State coach Frank Martin, whose team lost to Irving and Duke back in late-November. "They're completely different. They're near to being unguardable."

With Irving in the lineup, the Blue Devils are a completely different team. They go from a contender to the front-runner.

Now the Dukies become the favorites to defend their national title.

Ohio State's Jared Sullinger goes from the best frosh in the land to playing second fiddle behind Irving – and the Buckeyes also slide down to the No. 2 spot behind Duke.

Krzyzewski said on Tuesday that Irving won't start and will only play a few minutes at a time – if he gets on the court.

That sure sounds like a guy who will return.

Irving has been cleared to play by doctors after receiving a second opinion from a foot specialist. He went through the entire practice on Tuesday without limitation while wearing a special sneaker Nike constructed in an effort to prevent him from re-injuring his toe.

Sources told FOXSports.com that Irving is 100 percent healthy and didn't experience any pain or soreness after his first full-contact practice.

"His step is a tad slower, but he was hitting everything and is already taking minutes from (Seth) Curry and (Andre) Dawkins," a source in attendance said. "And Duke is running Nolan (Smith) and Kyle (Singler) off the ball exclusively."

"Personally, I don't think he's missed a beat," Singler told reporters after practice. "He's done a great job rehabbing. He's a little bit out of shape, but that's to be expected."

This is a guy who torched Michigan State for 31 points on Dec. 1. It's also the same guy who had 17 points, six assists and five boards in Duke's rout of Kansas State and held Wildcats star Jacob Pullen to a season-low four points on 1-of-12 shooting.

"He guarded Jacob as well as anyone has all year," Martin said.

I saw both games – and this is a kid who would have battled Jimmer Fredette, the likely National Player of the Year winner, for the award for the top player in America.

He can do it all: score, make his teammates better, defend and also shoot the ball.

His weakness coming into college was supposed to be his inability to make shots from deep – and he made 14 of his first 31 shots from beyond the arc for a sizzling 45 percent.

Irving's return would allow Nolan Smith to do what he does best, which is play off the ball and return to attack mode. Smith has adjusted well to having to balance scoring and distributing the ball, but this makes him more dangerous – and also allows him to be able to exert more energy on the defensive end.

Now Duke will be able to push the ball and get easy baskets – and it'll also make a significant difference on the defensive end because of Irving's athleticism.

"On his own, he's a great player, but his presence, savvy and ability makes everyone around him better," said Butler coach Brad Stevens, who watched Irving score 21 points against his team Dec. 4 before Irving was injured in the second half. "And those guys are already really good to begin with."

Now the Blue Devils can close out games essentially with two point guards: Irving and Smith. Irving's presence on the court also allows Singler to go back to power forward – a move that makes the team more effective.

There's no guarantee that Irving will be back this weekend, but it certainly sounds as though that's the way this is all heading.

"I'm going day by day," Coach K said. "Because I never expected him to be back where he is today."

No one did.

But Irving is on the verge of an improbable return – and if that happens, Duke may also return.

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