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Kyrie Irving, Duke Frosh, Pulls in the Spotlight

This column It was written by Gary Parrish.

After he had buried jumpers and slashed into the lane and drawn fouls and grabbed just as many rebounds as any of the big guys on the Michigan State roster, Kyrie Irving glanced into the Duke student section, shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

His classmates called his name in unison.

Now we have to figure out what to call him going forward.

The nation's best freshman?

Best point guard?

Best player, period?

Label Irving any of those things, and you'll get no argument from me.

The first-year star was terrific in Duke's 84-79 victory against Michigan State late Wednesday here at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and now the nation knows why those of us who watched Irving throughout high school had no issues ranking the Blue Devils No. 1 this preseason. Yes, they lost three starters from last year's national championship team, but they still upgraded in talent.

Irving is a top-tier prospect who operates at a different level. Almost everybody agreed he would be good. But I'm not sure anybody expected him to be this good this quickly -- to drop 31 points, six rebounds and four assists in the seventh game of his career against a veteran backcourt from a talented team coached by the basketball genius who is Tom Izzo.

"It felt good," Irving said. "It felt really good to play this well in a big game like this."

I guess so.

The wildest thing about Irving's monster statistical performance -- his 31 points represents the second highest by a freshman in Duke history -- was how it mostly came in the normal flow of the game. He rarely lost control, rarely took bad shots, rarely forced things that weren't there. He was just running his team and exploiting the other team's weaknesses, pushing when it was time to push and pulling back when it was time to pull back.

In other words, he was being a real point guard because he is a real point guard, and he's slowly -- quickly, actually -- developing into the go-to player for the nation's top-ranked team despite the fact that it's a top-ranked team featuring two senior All-Americans.

"In practices he'll tell somebody, 'Get out of the way, I've got it,' " said Nolan Smith, one of those senior All-Americans. "You don't really hear that too often -- a freshman telling two seniors on the wings to get out of the way. But we have no problem sitting back and letting him do it, because we know he can."

Michigan State now knows, too.

"He's a great player," said Spartans point guard Korie Lucious, who finished with 20 points and eight assists in the loss. "Coach K knows how to recruit great guards, and he's one of them."

Next up for Irving is a trip to his home state of New Jersey for a neutral-court showdown Saturday against Butler that'll be a rematch of last season's title game -- in name only. The Bulldogs and Blue Devils are much different teams than the teams the nation watched play at Lucas Oil Stadium on that memorable Monday in April, and by different, I mean Butler isn't nearly as good and Duke might possibly be better.

Either way, there's a good chance Irving will put on another show on national television, and if he does, you can rest assured that talks of a Player of the Year Award will start to intensify.

How will Irving handle it?

Can he handle it?

My prediction is that he'll handle it the same way he handles everything: calmly. Odds are he'll continue to take charge on the court -- gather teammates, demand the ball, direct traffic, etc. -- and play it cool away from it just the way he did late Wednesday, when he sat in a chair in the Duke locker room and downplayed his significance whenever somebody asked about it.

"I'm just trying to find my place," Irving said. "I'm just trying to fill a role."

Best I can tell, that role is the role of superstar.

So far, he seems to be filling it well.

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