Facing a massive uphill battle in Thursday night’s Georgia Tech versus Duke clash, the freshman-laden Yellow Jackets won the first half against a Blue Devil squad playing without forward Ryan Kelly. Duke proceeding to turn the second half into a typical Cameron Indoor blowout for a 73-57 win is almost beside the point.
If the Blue Devils want to recapture the No. 1 ranking or contend for a title in Kelly’s absence, there are still some serious adjustments they need to make. The final score badly overstates the quality of Duke's bounce-back performance after Saturday's loss to N.C. State.
The hole left by Kelly’s foot injury was most obvious, unsurprisingly, on the offensive end. Without his three-point shooting ability to space the floor, Georgia Tech’s massive front line could focus all its attention on Mason Plumlee.
The result was a painful first half for the Wooden Award favorite, who rallied to finish with 16 points but still shot just 7-of-20 from the field.
Just as worrisome, though, were the reminders of what the 6’11” Kelly wasn’t providing elsewhere. Despite a 16-point margin of victory, Duke was out-rebounded 39-38 by the physical Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech doesn’t even have the best front line in the ACC, let alone in the country. Top honors in the conference probably go to hulking Miami, which reigns alone atop the standings at 4-0 and will pose a real threat to knock off Duke if Kelly isn’t back by their meeting next Wednesday.
Of all the problems Duke faces with Kelly on the shelf, though, none is cause for more concern than the effect of losing his shot-blocking presence.
Georgia Tech is a terrible offensive team. At times on Thursday, the Yellow Jackets looked so disjointed that you’d almost have thought five strangers wandered in to play a pickup game wearing identical gold jerseys.
Still, the nation’s 228th-best scoring offense (and 223rd-best field-goal shooters) managed to hang with Duke for a half, largely because Plumlee didn’t have enough help guarding the paint. Had Kelly’s long arms been around to erase a few more of Tech’s desperate shots, Duke would’ve had the game in the bag far earlier than it did.
Neither starter Josh Hairston nor freshman reserve Amile Jefferson has looked comfortable replacing Kelly, especially with the pair combining for eight fouls against the Yellow Jackets. If Hairston (who didn’t impress against N.C. State either) lays another egg against Miami, don’t be surprised to see the energetic Jefferson thrust into the starting lineup.
One way or another, if Duke is to compete with top-10-caliber opponents, it must find a way to replace the lion's share of Kelly's production. If it can't, a team that looked like the national-title favorite a week ago could be heading for a March disappointment nearly as big as last year's upset by Lehigh.
Kelly, of course, watched that game from the sidelines, thanks to an earlier injury to the same foot.