Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Kyrie Irving return adds intrigue to brackets

Well, that's a first. The round of 64 hasn't even started yet, and already Americans are tearing up their brackets.

At least now (in most office pools) we still have time to make new ones. In the wake of this week's news that freshman sensation Kyrie Irving could play for Duke in the tournament following a three-month injury absence, a lot of people are reassessing how far they'll advance the Blue Devils on their sheets. Texas, San Diego State and Connecticut don't look as daunting in the West when Duke has its NBA-bound rookie alongside Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and company.

But that's the cruel twist here: We have no idea how much -- or how well -- Irving will play. Coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters on Tuesday that he won't really know until late this week after he sees how the guard adapts to being back on the court.

Sheesh. Isn't filling out a bracket tough enough as it is?

So it's a bit of a gamble, but it's one worth taking. Duke should get by Hampton with ease on Friday, then stiff-arm the Michigan/Tennessee survivor on Sunday. If the Blue Devils work Irving back into the mix in the process, they can win this whole thing. If they don't, well, I might be ripping up my bracket next weekend.

No problem, though. Had plenty of practice.

* * *

Nothing against the participants in Dayton, but we all know the tournament really begins today. The basketball buffet tips off with Clemson-West Virginia at 12:15 p.m. -- and don't be surprised if the Tigers get off to a slow start.

Adding the "First Four" round of games this year beat the alternative of expanding the field to 96, but clearly it's creating some issues. After thumping UAB in a 9 p.m. game in Ohio on Tuesday, Clemson had to travel to Tampa for today's matinee. The decent thing to do would have been to make this a night game, but apparently decency was not considered.

Yet another reason to try to stay off the bubble: The NCAA pops you every chance it gets.

* * *

The guy we've whined about for years -- the CBS game-switcher -- is no more. He'll probably be somewhere laughing today when we discover just how difficult his job really was.

You've never met him, but you've probably cursed him at some point during the past decade when he stuck you with the last two minutes of a blowout when a potential bracket-wrecking game was going down to the final possession somewhere else. Or maybe he pulled the plug on another game too early, denying you a chance to watch your favorite team rally.

Not an issue now.

In the greatest sports television advancement since the score box first appeared in the corner of the screen, we have been anointed the game-switcher throughout this tournament. With CBS, truTV, TNT and TBS all carrying individual games in their entirety, we'll be giving our thumbs a workout.

And if they're all blowouts? Just enjoy whichever game is being called by Gus Johnson. He's in Cleveland this week.

* * *

Can somebody kill those lights, please? Great: Now let's commence the stabbin'.

Round of 64 upsets: No. 12 Richmond over No. 5 Vanderbilt; No. 13 Belmont over No. 4 Wisconsin; No. 12 Utah State over No. 5 Kansas State; No. 11 Missouri over No. 6 Cincinnati; No. 11 Marquette over No. 6 Xavier.

First No. 1 seed to get bounced: Pittsburgh, by Old Dominion (second round).

Double-digit seed to make Sweet 16: Richmond.

Final Four: Duke, Kansas, Ohio State, Florida.

Championship: Duke over Kansas, 75-71.

Final Four MVP: Kyrie Irving? Nah, Nolan Smith.

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