(1) Duke vs. (5) Arizona
(1)Duke Blue Devils
The return of Kyrie Irving to the Duke lineup has stolen all the headlines over the last few days but, regardless, Nolan Smith has continued to elevate the Blue Devils with his spectacular play and his steady hand. Smith played a season-low 24 minutes in Duke’s win over Hampton in round two (I really have a hard time calling it that), but still came up with nine points and seven assists. His 24 points (8-14 shooting; 2-4 from deep) helped Duke outlast Michigan, 73-71, on Sunday and advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the third consecutive year. With proven players in Smith and fellow senior Kyle Singler (the 2010 Final Four Most Outstanding Player), this team will only go as far as the rest of the roster will take. Irving started the season as one of the best players in the country, but his three-plus month absence from the floor leaves his impact on this tournament up in the air. Irving’s ability to re-assimilate himself within this group, as well as the play of forwards Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Miles Plumlee on the interior will determine how far this team goes.
The NCAA Tournament is often a stage on which a player will elevate his profile in the eyes of basketball fans and scouts alike. Despite being named the Pac-10 player of the year, Arizona’s Derrick Williams hasn’t gotten the publicity that some of his contemporaries (BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, Duke’s Smith, Connecticut’s Kemba Walker) have garnered throughout the season. Until now. Williams is averaging 19.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Wildcats’ two victories and, while his numbers aren’t necessarily up in 2011 Big Dance, his resilience and mental toughness have definitively been proven. The sophomore forward, after starting Arizona’s third round game against Texas 0-6 from the field, continued to battle and finished the game with 17 points, nine rebounds, three steals and four assists, including a three-point play with nine seconds left to give Arizona the lead for good. If the Wildcats are able to get past the Sweet Sixteen, Williams’ draft stock will soar.
HOOPSWORLD’s Pick: Duke. Williams has been as good as anyone in college basketball this year but the return of Kyrie Irving makes Duke a far more explosive offensive team and too much for Arizona.