CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyrie Irving zipped down the floor toward an empty frontcourt and fired a pass to a teammate for an easy basket.
Even during a simple drill with the reserves, the electrifying point guard once again had Duke off and running.
Now the Blue Devils will find out how well he’ll have them rolling in a game — and on college basketball’s biggest stage.
No. 1 seed Duke’s NCAA Tournament opener against No. 16 seed Hampton today in the West Regional will mark Irving’s return to the court. The flashy freshman has been out since Dec. 4 with an injured big toe on his right foot, and coach Mike Krzyzewski plans to bring him off the bench and play him limited minutes.
“He hasn’t played in a long, long time, but he’s the type [of] player, you give him the ball, he’s going to get out there and he’ll help us if he gets on the court,’’ guard Nolan Smith said. “He’s that good a player.’’
With Irving’s return, the reigning national champions are reintroducing another elite talent to a rotation that already includes the most outstanding player of last year’s Final Four, Kyle Singler, and Smith, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s player of the year.
“We want to play the way we’ve been playing and integrate him into what we’re doing,’’ Krzyzewski said.
Still, Duke clearly doesn’t want to expect too much too soon from Irving. At the time of his injury, Irving had Duke at 8-0 and was averaging a then-team-best 17.4 points.
Irving acknowledges his conditioning isn’t where he wants it, but he says he’s able to do nearly everything he could before he was hurt. He pronounced himself 95 percent healthy, said “the other 5 percent will come when I actually play out there’’ and acknowledged being even more nervous than he was for his Duke debut back in November.
“It’s even more nerve-racking, just the amount of pressure on Duke and just the aura of the NCAA Tournament,’’ Irving said. “I just want to enjoy it with my teammates.’’
Especially since Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils never expected him back — at least, not publicly.
Not long after Irving was hurt, Coach K said he was prepared to play the rest of the season without him. Irving spent roughly two months in a hard cast while Duke rolled up a 22-4 record and claimed a third straight ACC tournament title.
Speculation on Irving’s possible return started to pick up last week at the ACC tournament when he worked out in public before a game, then said last Sunday that there was a chance he could return for the tournament.
Krzyzewski downplayed it at the time, then acknowledged the possibility two days later but said he wanted to see how Irving’s toe responded to practice. They have insisted Irving’s return wouldn’t threaten team chemistry.
“I’m a pretty good basketball player, and I’m not a selfish one, at that,’’ Irving said.
His return has all but overshadowed a second-round matchup that figures to be one-sided.
Duke enters as a 23-point favorite over Hampton (24-8), which won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament and is in the Round of 64 for the first time since 2002.
“It’s a good chance to measure where you are as a program,’’ Hampton coach Edward Joyner Jr. said.
Then again, the Pirates have pulled off a stunner before.
Almost exactly 10 years ago, they knocked off then-No. 2 seed Iowa State as a No. 15 to match the biggest upset according to seeding in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
“Ten years later, I got the opportunity to possibly, you know, make history again,’’ Joyner said. “No disrespect to Iowa State, they ain’t Duke. We’re going to go out there and try.’’