The Duke Blue Devils started the season off on a 15-game winning streak, which included wins over Kentucky, Minnesota, Virgina Commonwealth, Louisville and Ohio State. They also took the Battle 4 Atlantis championship and have a No. 1 overall ranking.
Then came the unfortunate injury to senior Ryan Kelly, who is instrumental to Duke's long-term success.
With Kelly sidelined indefinitely, Duke has since gone 2-2 and has not looked like the same team that was once viewed as a serious championship contender. Although the loss of Kelly hurts, it has been a bittersweet situation as it has allowed other players to earn pivotal minutes for a Duke team searching for an entirely new identity.
While the Blue Devils have experienced an extremely abundant amount of success to this point, they will now have to make a strong push through their remaining 12 conference games. Matches that include rematches with North Carolina State and Miami—a chance to redeem their only two losses of the season—and their annual two game clash with rival North Carolina in order to capture their 23rd ACC regular season championship.
Until then, I have recapped each player's individual performance from the first half of the season, and value their importance to this team as they strive towards their ultimate goal of a fifth national championship in school history.
Statistics: 34.3 MPG, 17.4 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.6 BPG, .582 FG%, .629 FT%
After three stellar years at Duke, senior Mason Plumlee has finally lived up to the hype and expectations that he has had instilled into him since before his freshman year.
Compiling twelve double-doubles this season while leading the team in scoring, rebounding, and field goal shooting, Plumlee has been at the forefront in the race for Naismith College Player of the Year.
With his teammate and fellow senior Ryan Kelly out due to injury, Plumlee has garnered the majority of the attention from opposing defenses. His numbers are still good in the four games without Kelly as he is averaging 16.3 points and 10.5 rebounds.
One of Plumlee's biggest weaknesses throughout his career was his free throw shooting. Through the first nine games of the season, it became one of his biggest strengths as he was shooting 73 percent from the charity stripe. In the next 10 games Plumlee regressed, shooting just 50 percent.
In any regard, the improvement that Plumlee has shown this season has been remarkable. Looking back, most felt that we would never see his potential fulfilled. Now that he has, the sky is really the limit for the Duke Blue Devils in this parity-filled college basketball season.
Statistics: 30.1 MPG, 15.7 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, .448 FG%, .820 FT%, .429 3FG%
Courageously, senior guard Seth Curry has played marvelously while dealing with a nagging right shin injury all season. He is second on the team in scoring, free throw shooting and three-point shooting while being limited in team practices all season to preserve his injured shin.
Curry has experienced some of his best games of his Duke career this season, but he has also played in his worst.
He has scored 20+ plus points eight different times this season, including a 31 point performance in a win against Santa Clara. Easily one of his worst games was last Wednesday's disappointing loss to Miami where he went scoreless while going 0-10 from the field and 0-5 from three. Counting the game against Miami, he is in the middle of a two game shooting slump as he is 5-24 from the field and 3-13 from three.
While his slump will most likely not last for long, Curry is still held in high regard as one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the country. Looking ahead, questions have come up regarding his mysterious shin injury and if it will affect his play for an entire season. If the second half of the season can compare to the first, then Curry could finish out his final year at Duke leading the Duke Blue Devils back to the Final Four.
Statistics: 28.3 MPG, 13.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 1.5 APG, .471 FG%, .793 FT%, .521 3FG%
If you didn't know before his injury, your finding out how important the loss of senior Ryan Kelly is.
Since re-injuring the same foot that cost him the final three games of his junior season, Duke is currently 2-2 without him after starting the season 15-0, and becoming one of the top teams in the country.
The loss has been a crucial blow to a Duke Blue Devils team, who had started the season off impressively by getting through their ridiculously difficult non-conference schedule unscathed.
Kelly is Duke's third leading scorer and leads the team in three-point shooting. He is also a matchup nightmare, as he is one of the best inside-out forwards in the country. However, it's on the defensive end where Kelly is missed the most. In their two losses to North Carolina State and Miami, the Blue Devils had their two worst defensive performances of the season.
Certainly, all of Duke's defensive woes cannot be attributed to the loss of Kelly; however, his ability to guard multiple positions on the floor and to alter shots have been extremely hard to replace.
We’re obviously a different team without Ryan and we have to play like we won’t have him. I think we will have him at some time, but we have to figure out who we are without him.
There has been talk that Kelly could miss the remainder of the season, but hearing coach Krzyzewski express his thoughts on a likely return, all could be well in Durham soon.
Statistics: 29.3 MPG, 12.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.0 SPG, .421 FG%, .778 FT%, .416 3FG%
When talking about Rasheed Sulaimon, I've often said that without him Duke is not sitting with a 17-2 record.
Outside of a dreadful shooting slump prior to the new year, the freshman guard's play has been outstanding for the Duke Blue Devils. He has scored in double figures 13 different times, including a career high 25 points in Duke's last game against Maryland. Sulaimon finished that game shooting 69 percent from the field and an astonishing 75 percent from three.
Duke desperately needs that third leading scorer in place of the injured Ryan Kelly, and Sulaimon has the perfect offensive game to fill that void for the time being.
Statistics: 33.6 MPG, 11.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.8 SPG, .412 FG%, .861 FT%, .377 3FG%
Quinn Cook's play this season has been sensational. He is currently second on the team in minutes and is second in the ACC in assist to turnover margin.
Cook shined at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, earning MVP honors while leading Duke to the championship. From then on out, he has been a steady model of consistency at the most important position in college basketball. He can easily be included in the discussion as one of the top point guards in the country, not only for his skill, but also for his emotion and passion that is on display every game.
In his last six games, Cook has racked up 7.5 assists per game while averaging just 1.8 turnovers. Outside of the senior trio, the sophomore point guard has arguably been the best player for the Duke Blue Devils this season.
Statistics: 11.9 MPG, 4.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.6 BPG, 0.4 SPG, .523 FG%, .536 FT%
When Ryan Kelly re-injured his right foot against Clemson in Duke's second conference game, panic set in rather quickly. While the Duke Blue Devils are still trying to find their new identity with the absence of Kelly, freshman forward Amile Jefferson has given a huge spark with his play.
In four games with Kelly sidelined, Jefferson has put together his four best games of his young Duke career averaging 10 points and seven rebounds per game while earning a starting position.
While the return of Kelly has yet to be determined, Jefferson has the skill and talent to provide Duke with enough positive minutes that will lead to more victories going forward.
Statistics: 21.2 MPG, 3.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.5 SPG, .327 FG%, .667 FT%, .348 3FG%
Junior guard Tyler Thornton has played acceptable for Duke all season. Not known as an offensive threat, Thornton is capable of hitting at least one or two three point baskets a night for the Duke Blue Devils. However, it's on the defensive end where he earns the majority of his minutes. His combination of constant pressure and solid footwork has placed him at second on the team in steals.
As long as Thornton plays within his limitations, he will continue to be a reliable asset for the Blue Devils' success the rest of the way.
Statistics: 6.2 MPG, 2.4 PPG, 1.3 RPG, .514 FG%, .250 FT%, .286 3FG%
It has been a tumultuous season for redshirt freshman Alex Murphy. From starting Duke's first two exhibition games, to missing the season opener in a 19 point win over Georgia State which kick-started the first mention of transfer rumors, to then scoring a career high 11 points while essentially looking like the best player of the night for the Duke Blue Devils in their blowout loss to Miami last Wednesday.
While the talent is there for Murphy, his lack of confidence has been his main struggle this season. He still remains committed to being a team player and is taking the day by day approach.
Murphy is also seeing an increase in playing time with the absence of Ryan Kelly. While there is still a high level of uncertainty revolving around Kelly's return, this could be a blessing in disguise for the 6'8" forward to put together a string of good games to help place him in a more significant role by season's end.
Statistics: 12.0 MPG, 1.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG, .432 FG%, .500 FT%
Exhibiting large amounts of energy before, during and after a game, junior forward Josh Hairston never disappoints. While it has been a challenge to earn significant minutes early in his career at Duke, it has not slowed down his effort to become the type of player to make all of the hustle plays for this team.
Tremendously undersized for a front court player, Hairston has disputed the notion that he cannot compete against other big men. He makes the most of his opportunities on the offensive glass, earning second chance points for the Duke Blue Devils. He is also the team leader in charges taken, in just 12 minutes of playing time per game.
Since Ryan Kelly re-injured his right foot in Duke's second conference game against Clemson, Hairston earned the starting position in his place. In his first start, he finished with eight points and five rebounds in 25 minutes in the Blue Devils' first loss of the season against North Carolina State. Since then, he has seen his minutes dwindle as freshman Amile Jefferson has been more effective on both ends of the floor.
Nevertheless, Hairston will not allow the better play of others to affect his individual game. He is the perfect "team player" and will continue to make the right plays when it counts for Duke.
Statistics: 3.1 MPG, 0.3 PPG, 0.6 RPG, 0.3 BPG, .200 FG%
Redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee started this season on the sidelines for Duke after suffering a stress fracture of his left second metatarsal nearly a month before the Duke Blue Devils' first game against Georgia State.
After going through rehabilitation for almost two months, the youngest of the three Plumlee brothers made his on-court debut against Cornell on December 19.
He has played in eight games so far this season, but is still a year or two away from being an important piece of this Duke team.
Next season he will be thrust into a more considerable role as he will be the team's only true center.
Statistics: 3.0 MPG, 1.3 PPG, 0.5 RPG, .667 FG%, .250 FT%
Senior Todd Zafirovski has seen the court for Duke four different times this season. In an 88-50 win over Delaware earlier this year, Zafirovski played a career-high six minutes while also scoring his first two points of his Duke career.