DeCock: Devils a tale of two toes

STAFF COLUMNISTMarch 11, 2011 

STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Duke's Nolan Smith grimaces in pain after injuring his toe in the second half against Maryland.

CHUCK LIDDY — CHUCK LIDDY - cliddy@newsobserver.com

— It’s the ACC tournament, it’s spring and thoughts of toes are in the air.

While Kyrie Irving quickened the pulses of Duke fans by conducting the rehabilitation exercises for his injured toe on the Greensboro Coliseum court as the Blue Devils warmed up Friday, Nolan Smith left Duke’s 87-71 win over Maryland with six minutes and change to go after jamming a toe of his own on Cliff Tucker’s unyielding foot.

What is it with guards and toes? North Carolina nearly saw its title hopes vanish two years ago when Ty Lawson’s stubbed toe swelled up. Irving hasn’t played since he severely stubbed his right big toe against Butler way back in December. Irving stayed in that game, only to find out the next morning how bad the injury really was, forever changing the direction of Duke’s season.

And now Smith appeared to suffer the same kind of turf-toe injury as Lawson and Irving, officially a “jammed toe.” They might as well call it court toe.

“It’s hard to tell at this point,” Duke forward Miles Plumlee said. “You know, Kyrie went back in and played that one game, and look where he ended up. I’m not trying to be pessimistic, but you just never know.”

With Irving, for eight games, the Blue Devils might have been the best team in the country. Without him, they weren’t even the best team in their own conference thanks to North Carolina’s win a week ago -- although in Irving’s absence, Smith established himself as the clear ACC player of the year.

Despite his cameo appearance Friday, Duke has said all along that Irving isn’t expected to return this season, while at the same time never ruling it out. The Blue Devils have proven they can win without Irving. Friday, they showed they can win without Smith.

He was a non-factor even before he was hurt as Tucker and Adrian Bowie limited Smith to seven points and five turnovers on 2-for-11 shooting. Then he collided with Tucker in the lane and ended up writhing in pain in the corner. Irving watched aghast, one hand on his head, as Smith limped slowly toward the bench.

“He’s hurting,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward.

Smith will be evaluated overnight and it remains uncertain whether he’ll be able to play today against the winner of Friday’s late game between Florida State and Virginia Tech.

If such woe over a toe sounds familiar, at this time of year in the ACC, apparently the thoughts of young men turn to injured toes.

Two years ago in Atlanta, Lawson led the Tar Heels and their fans on a will-he-or-won’t-he odyssey that lasted weeks. He first hurt the big toe on his right foot in an early March practice and thought it wasn’t too bad. Two days later, he played with the help of a pain-killing injection, then took his father’s advice afterward to soak the foot in an Epsom-salt bath.

Lawson’s toe swelled up to the size of a basketball, and suddenly the Tar Heels’ national-title hopes were resting on the enlarged joint’s ability to carry Lawson’s weight and the weight of significant expectations.

Lawson sat out the ACC tournament, worked himself back into action during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament and proved healthy enough to lead the Tar Heels to the national title.

Duke had similar aspirations with Irving, and while losing him tempered those expectations, they remained strong. It’s hard to imagine those hopes staying that high without two of the most important toes on its roster.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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