Duke wasn't just going to go away that easily.
The loss to Miami last Wednesday was every bit as bad as it looked and magnified the issues that this team has without Ryan Kelly—and probably even with him. Mike Krzyzewski's roster is not oozing with NBA talent as he has had many years, and the Blue Devils need to be sharp.
It begins, ends and always comes back to the guards, especially without Kelly.
Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon combined for 49 points, 12 assists and only two turnovers on Saturday afternoon in an 84-64 win over Maryland that reminded us Duke can still look like one of the top teams in the country.
The Blue Devils can also look mediocre.
It's easy to think that the national player of the year candidate would be the deciding factor, but if you read between the lines of what Mason Plumlee says, even he knows it's more on others than himself.
"Everybody has to show up," Plumlee told the News & Observer after the Miami loss. "We can't just have a couple guys showing up. And then tonight, no one shows up. We have to get better. We can't have a bad practice, we can't have a bad game. We have to practice better each day, and that will translate if we do that."
Replace "everybody" with Cook, Curry and Sulaimon, and that works just as well.
In an 84-76 loss to North Carolina State, Sulaimon went 0-of-10. Cook scored 17 points and had seven assists, but he needed 16 shots to get his points and also had four turnovers.
In the 90-63 loss to Miami, Curry went 0-of-10 and Cook went 1-of-12. The Blue Devils' perimeter defense was just as bad as their shooting. Miami's guards got to the paint at will.
The Blue Devils, it appeared, were playing in sand.
Saturday was more of the defense that we've come to expect from Coach K's teams. Duke's pressure forced Maryland into 14 turnovers, the most the Terps have given away in ACC play. Cook was back to getting into the lane and creating. Curry found his shot again (3-of-8 from three), and Sulaimon played with great confidence, scoring a career-high 25 points.
That opened things up for Plumlee, who scored 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
Plumlee needs space to be effective and it's a lot easier to take him away if Duke's guards are playing poorly. What makes these Blue Devils one of the best in the country when they're on is superb execution.
Kelly knows his role so well on both ends that he makes that a lot easier. Without him, the pressure falls on Cook, Curry and Sulaimon.
Against Maryland, the three guards moved in unison and had Maryland's defense trying to recover all day.
The rematch against Miami is March 2, and until that date, Duke has only one game against an opponent that is currently ranked—No. 18 NC State on Feb. 7 at Cameron.
No one knows if Kelly will be back by the rematch against the Hurricanes, but as long as the Blue Devils' guards show up like they did against the Terps, they'll be just fine.
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