NBA Draft 2012: Duke's Austin Rivers Must Prove His Value at the Big Dance

James ReaganCorrespondent IIMarch 14, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 10:  Austin Rivers #0 of the Duke Blue Devils looks on in the first half against the Florida State Seminoles during the semifinals of the 2012 ACC Men's Basketball Conferene Tournament at Philips Arena on March 10, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Despite the good season that he has had so far, Austin Rivers needs to perform well at the 2012 NCAA tournament in order to justify his NBA draft position.

Currently. Duke's freshman guard is projected to be drafted as early as the top 10. But there are lots of factors that could change where he falls and Duke's tournament run is definitely one of them.

After seeing their ACC title hopes disappear in their semifinal loss to Florida State, Duke's remote chances of winning a one seed were extinguished and their best hope was now to get a favorable draw as a No. 2 seed.

That's essentially what they got as the two seed in the south region. Yes, Kentucky is the best team in the tournament and beating them in the Elite Eight would likely be a very difficult task. But before they can even play Kentucky, Duke doesn't have too difficult competition especially in the first two rounds of play.

This starts with the opening round game against Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks finished the year 26-7 and currently have an eight-game winning streak. But with most of those wins coming against unimpressive competition in the Patriot League, no one is really expecting Lehigh to beat Duke and many don't even think it will be close. 

If Duke beats Lehigh, Rivers should be a big part of the reason why. Having led the team with 15 points a game and a total of 508 on the season, he has been the unquestioned leader of Duke's offense. Now that he gets to go against a Lehigh team that has struggled with defending shooting guards.

During the 2011 season, Rivers has clearly entrenched his reputation as being an isolation perimeter scoring threat. Perhaps among all of the nation's point guards, there is no one else who has a better scorer-mentality than Rivers. Every time he has the ball, Duke expects something good to happen and it's now at the point where he's the guy that's got to take that final shot with no time on the clock. 

This talent should translate very well to the NBA, which is all about players that can make the game-winning shot. This trait will especially be desired among the teams that will be picking in the early rounds as many of these teams struggle with closing out games and don't have that clutch player that can win games for them.

He's certainly come a long way since where he was back at the beginning of this season. In his debut game against Belmont, Rivers turned the ball over five times while only shooting .333 percent from field goal range. Even two games later against Michigan State, Rivers still had bad numbers with only five points on an awful .143 percent from field goal range. 

Ever since then, Rivers has played better. This included one stretch in February where he put up 16 or more points in four consecutive games. He's also finally improved his free throw percentage, which was one of his earlier weaknesses by making six out of seven shots in the loss to Florida State.

All this regular season success is good but for Rivers and for Duke, it just isn't enough. To be remembered as one of the all-time greats in Duke, you have to raise your performance in the tournament. That's basically an expectation when playing for one of the greatest college basketball programs in the nation.

Since their only a two seed this season, it's clear that this Duke team is not as strong as some of the more recent teams. Coach K knows this and he's got to understand that Rivers is the key to their offense. Their game plan will have to involve getting the ball to him often—especially when the game is getting close to it's end.

With this likely being Rivers' only season in college basketball, he'll also have the sense of urgency that comes with this being his only chance at a college basketball title.

Win a title, or at least make a deep tournament run, and he could become immortalized as a great player for a legendary program. Lose early in the tournament and he could be thought of as one of those over-hyped NBA prospects that wasn't nearly as good as advertised. 

The pressure is clearly on Rivers. Will he be up for the challenge? We're only a few games away from finding out.