Why Duke Is Still the NCAA Title Favorite After Upset at NC State

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Why Duke Is Still the NCAA Title Favorite After Upset at NC State
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Freshman Amile Jefferson will play a key role with senior Ryan Kelly out.

Don't panic, Dukies. North Carolina State may have won the battle 84-76 in Raleigh, but Duke will still win the war and capture the NCAA title.

Look to the game stats for the story within the story: Seth Curry had 22 points on 5-of-10 deep shooting, while Quinn Cook had 17 points and seven assists. Mason Plumlee had his 11th double-double of the season and shot an astonishing 70 percent from the floor.

That's your point guard, shooter and inside threat, still firing on all cylinders.

The missing piece in this game was obvious. Senior forward Ryan Kelly injured his foot in the first half of last week's 68-40 blowout of Clemson, and he showed up on crutches and in street clothes for today's game.

Kelly is a rarity in college basketball. Standing 6'11", Kelly is Duke's most accurate three-point shooter—52 percent from behind the arc—and an excellent, mobile defender. He was Duke's third-leading scorer when he went down.

Kelly stretches the floor for Duke, providing much of the midrange game that draws defenders away from Plumlee and Curry. While the team will surely miss that, it's important to note that only an elite team like No. 20 N.C. State—a squad loaded with blue-chip athletes—can take advantage of this small chink in the Blue Devils' armor.

The Wolfpack also have an elite point guard in Lorenzo Brown and a junkyard-dog interior force in Richard Howell. They can also create matchup nightmares with long, efficient shooters like C.J. Leslie and Scott Wood.

Where else in the ACC can you find that combination? At North Carolina? No. Miami, Florida State? No and no. Maryland is close, but still a no.

Which team could face Duke for the NCAA title?

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Looking beyond the ACC, who in the national top 10 matches up with Duke? 

Michigan has an unparalleled backcourt starring Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., but lacks a big man who could match up with Plumlee. Louisville has already tested its mettle against this Duke team and went home with its first loss of the season. Arizona was laid low by an unheralded Oregon team last week, and Indiana fell to a Butler team that made the Hoosiers' perimeter defense look like Swiss cheese.

Sans Kelly, a team like Indiana, Kansas or even Gonzaga might be able to eke out a close victory right now. If Kelly comes back after a month on the sidelines, as predicted, there will once again be no holes in Duke's game.

If he doesn't come back, what do the Blue Devils have in the cupboard?

Not one player on the roster can do what Kelly does on offense and defense. Against N.C. State, freshman Amile Jefferson came closest, scoring 10 points on offense and blocking two shots on defense. Junior Josh Hairston got the start and was moderately effective, scoring eight to go with five boards. Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee saw very little floor time.

For now, Jefferson seems to be the best option. He's a credible slasher and finisher, and he can really get out and run the floor in transition. Putting him in the starting lineup gives the Devils a chance to win games in the ACC while Kelly is out, and it gives Jefferson crucial experience that will serve him well in the postseason.

If Seth Curry's late-game injury lingers at all, this picture changes. But at full strength, there are only two or three teams in the nation that can hang with Duke. Put any of those elite teams in a postseason game with the Blue Devils, and it becomes a chess match.

In that situation, who do you put your money on? The winningest coach in men's Division I basketball history, or the other guy?

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