- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kyrie Irving returned to the Duke lineup. Nolan Smith played as if he doesn’t ever want to leave it.

Toss in sharpshooters Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry, and the Blue Devils have an embarrassment of riches in the backcourt.

Strong guard play can carry a team a long way in the NCAA tournament and it’s taken Duke once again into the second weekend.

After two wins in Charlotte, N.C., top-seeded Duke (32-4) is catching its breath before heading cross country to Anaheim, Calif., for its West regional semifinal against fifth-seeded Arizona (29-7) on Thursday night.

And perhaps the most important thing the Blue Devils learned in wins over Hampton and Michigan, coach Mike Krzyzewski said, was just how long their freshman point guard is capable of staying on the court.

“We now know that Kyrie can play and he can play extended minutes,” Krzyzewski said. “We knew he could play. We didn’t know how rusty he would be. … That’s a big thing going forward. Now, how do we integrate that with what we already have?

“It’s a good problem to have when you’re trying to figure out how to integrate Kyrie Irving into what you’re doing,” he added.

The much-anticipated return of Irving strengthened a backcourt anchored for 3 1/2 months by Smith, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year _ with assists from Dawkins and Curry.

In the games against Hampton and Michigan, Krzyzewski kept his starting backcourt of Smith and Curry intact while bringing Irving off the bench to ease the flashy freshman back into action.

Irving scored most of his 14 points in the second half of the tournament opener against Hampton. That’s when he finally appeared comfortable on the court again after extended time away while the injured big toe on his right foot healed.

Then, he added 11 _ including a key banked-in jumper in the final seconds _ against the Wolverines.

That bucket came during a stretch late in the game in which Krzyzewski had all four guards on the floor at the same time of the 73-71 win against Michigan’s four-guard lineup.

“We have confidence in all of them,” Krzyzewski said. “I think a lot has to be said about Kyrie, that he’s had 2 1/2 practices and he’s played in these two games. … For him to be put in that position and make that floater with as soft as it can be, you know, that’s a heck of a thing for that kid.

“We wouldn’t be going forward if (Irving) didn’t play,” Krzyzewski added.

Their season also probably would be over if they didn’t have Smith.

The Blue Devils didn’t need much from their senior co-captain in their opener, when he scored nine points in the 42-point romp against Hampton.

But he seemed to put the Michigan game away by scoring 10 straight points as part of a 19-6 run that put Duke up by 15. The highlight came when he hit the brakes in transition, sending defender Tim Hardaway Jr. to the ground as he pulled up for a pretty jumper.

“I was watching a great player at work,” Irving said of Smith. “I was running up and down the court watching Nolan be Nolan. When Nolan’s rolling, you just watch.”

Smith finished with 24 points, but his missed free throw with 8.7 seconds gave the Wolverines a chance to force overtime. When Darius Morris missed a runner in the lane, Smith grabbed the rebound to seal the win.

“The switch that I flipped (against Michigan) was I don’t want to take this Duke jersey off,” Smith said. “It’s as simple as that.”