KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Two weeks into what will likely be his only season of college basketball, 18-year-old Kyrie Irving has already participated in one of the main rituals practiced by so many Duke standouts before him.
For Irving, the moment came just prior to midnight Tuesday, when he was named most valuable player at the CBE Classic after leading the top-ranked Blue Devils to an 82-68 victory over No. 4 Kansas State. Irving's teammates whooped and hollered and teased him as he posed with his award at midcourt.
"It's his first time," a few Blue Devils chuckled near the sideline.
Perhaps – but it might not be his last.
As good as Duke was during last year's national championship season, the Blue Devils are even better this year with Irving. Kansas State found that out the hard way, when Irving scored 17 points and dished out six assists while bullying Wildcats standout Jacob Pullen on his own turf.
A senior All-American candidate, Pullen missed all but one of his 12 shots and finished with just four points thanks to Irving's defensive pressure. After what truly felt like an old-fashioned barbequing at Kansas City's Sprint Center, Wildcats coach Frank Martin was asked if he thought Duke was the top team in college basketball.
"They just beat the living (expletive) out of us, he said. "If there's one better, I don't want to play them."
The season may be young, but the Blue Devils made one thing clear: In college basketball this year, it's Duke and then everyone else. The gap between No. 1 and the rest pack is that big – and it's all because of a 6-foot-2, wiry freshman who will probably become a millionaire a few months after his 19th birthday.
It's been nearly a decade – probably since Jason Williams – that Duke had a point guard the caliber of Irving. Along with being one of the fastest players in the country with the ball in his hands, Irving can score from both mid and long-range. He can slash to the rim through traffic, and he takes as much pride in distributing as he does scoring.
"On this team, no one person is better than the other," Irving said. "We all have equal status."
Comments such as those are a reflection of Irving's biggest attribute: leadership. Taking command of a team that is fresh off a national championship would seem almost impossible for a freshman – especially when that team features a pair of senior All-American candidates in Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. But the Blue Devils have so much respect for Irving that his role has never been an issue.
"He has so much confidence," Smith said. "He knows he's good. We've just embraced him. We let him play his game. We don't want him to change anything. When he looks to us, we're telling him, 'Go!' I think that gives him more confidence to run the show."
Speaking of running, the Blue Devils (5-0) are doing a lot more of it with Irving. Duke won last year's title with Jon Scheyer at point guard. Scheyer was an efficient player who shot well from the outside and limited his mistakes, but with him the lineup, Duke was vulnerable to being upset on an off night.
With the more athletic Irving on the court, Duke will be one of the higher-scoring teams in nation because the Blue Devils will play at an incredibly fast pace.
Smith was asked if this Duke team, with Irving in the lineup, could be better than the 2009-10 squad that went 35-5 en route to the NCAA title.
"We definitely can," Smith said. "I'm not taking anything away from Jon, but this style of play is a lot more fun. We're pushing the ball. We can definitely get a lot better. Right now we're just OK."
Kansas State may beg to differ.
Duke forced the Wildcats into 21 turnovers and rattled them to the point that they missed 12-of-23 free-throw attempts. At times it seemed as if the Blue Devils were toying with Kansas State. Their lead grew to 19 points in the second half. And remember, this was against the country's fourth-ranked program, a team that went to the Elite Eight last season.
Pullen said Irving played "with great poise for a freshman," but he said Duke's entire offense is what makes the Blue Devils so impressive.
Singler, Irving and Mason Plumlee are both projected as first-round picks in next summer's NBA draft. Smith, who scored 17 points, is also a future pro. And Duke brings a pair of 3-point specialists off the bench in Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins.
"They're so tough to guard," Pullen said. "They run an NBA-spaced offense. Coach K has this down to a science, people, and it's a great science. You can't [play help defense] against them. If you do they'll pick you apart."
Especially when Duke's star freshman has the ball in his hands.
Irving is so fast that, one time, he beat Kansas State's entire team down the court after a made basket for a coast-to-coast layup. When Pullen tried to guard him high on the perimeter, the cat-quick Irving blew right by him and into the lane.
Irving is from the same state (New Jersey) as Williams, the former Duke All-American who now works in broadcasting. Williams is friends with Irving and watched him play on numerous occasions prior to this season.
"When I think of a point guard," Williams said, "I think of someone who can dictate tempo and understands touches. He'll be able to say, 'OK, I'm playing with a couple of All-Americans. Has Kyle gotten enough touches? Has Nolan gotten enough touches?' It's a rare accomplishment for a guard at a young age to learn those kinds of things."
Williams paused and smiled.
"At the same time," he said, "[Irving] can take over a game when he needs to. He's that good."
Which is why Irving and the Blue Devils walked away with the first-place trophy from the CBE Classic, which was played before 18,696 purple-clad Kansas State fans Tuesday.
With the ACC as mediocre as it's been in years, the Wildcats may have been the toughest team Duke will face all season. And this was certainly one of the most raucous environments the Blue Devils will experience.
Still, they seemed right at home as the song "We Are the Champions" boomed over the speaker system during the trophy presentation. It was a fitting tune.
For Tuesday evening.
And maybe a night in April, too.
- Blue Devils