With Ryan Kelly on the court, Duke was clearly the best team in the country and everyone's early-season favorite to win the national championship. Without him, the Blue Devils are still among the nation's best teams, but just one of a group of good-but-not-great teams capable of reaching the Final Four.
They still have enough talent to make a deep run in the postseason, but their margin for error has shrunk considerably without the versatile Kelly in the lineup, and a lot of pieces have to fall into place each game.
Complicating Duke's postseason prospects is the fact that Ryan may return before the NCAA Tournament, which would certainly benefit the team in the long run but will require a late-season adjustment after the team worked to find a new identity in Kelly's absence. Duke faced a similar situation two years ago when Kyrie Irving returned for the postseason after a long absence, and the results were not what Duke had hoped for.
Here are the issues and possible postseason solutions for Duke.
Problems Created by Kelly's Absence
Kelly is the epitome of what has become known as the stretch 4 -- a power forward who can stretch the defense and take pressure off the post player (in this case Mason Plumlee) with his ability to hit three-pointers. The 6'11" Kelly hit 52.1 percent of his three-pointers in his 15 games this season, a huge benefit at any position, but a godsend at the power forward spot.
He provided the critical No. 3 scorer, supporting Plumlee and Seth Curry by scoring in double figures in every game except the victories against overmatched Cornell and Georgia Southern.
Kelly was also the team's second-leading rebounder, leaving a point guard, Quinn Cook, as the Blue Devils No. 2 rebounder in his absence.
Finally, Kelly was an outstanding defender, both in transition and in the halfcourt, with the ability to handle an opposing big man inside and outside.
Teams have hurt Duke in several ways in Kelly's absence. North Carolina State beat the Blue Devils with its transition game and pounding the ball inside, while North Carolina had some success this week going small and matching up against the Duke's perimeter player. Neither ploy would have been as successful with Kelly available.
The three key players in Kelly's absence are Cook and freshmen Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson.
Cook and Sulaimon must become consistent double-figure scorers to complement Curry on the perimeter.
Duke relies heavily on three-point shooting, and is one of the nation's best in that department, hitting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. The Blue Devils need two of their three key perimeter threats to have big games for them to win. If Tyler Thornton can provide offense occasionally, so much the better, but his chief role remains that of a glue player who provides the needed toughness and energy.
Plumlee has figured out to get his points without Kelly along side, but Duke needs that second and third scorer. Curry, Cook and Plumlee all scored better than 20 points in the home win over North Carolina State, and Sulaimon had 25 points along with the 31 points provided by Curry and Plumlee in the 20-point victory over Maryland.
However, Curry and Cook combined for just five points in the blowout loss to Miami, and Sulaimon and Cook were a combined 4-for-17 in the one-point win over 10th-place Boston College. No longer can Cook be just a playmaker, and no longer can Sulaimon be just a complementary player.
The other key is the 6'8" Jefferson, who doesn't have to score a lot but needs to help Plumlee on the boards and be a reliable post defender. His playing time has increased significantly in Kelly's absence, and he's averaging a respectable 6.0 boards in the past eight games.
If Kelly cannot become a regular part of the Blue Devils lineup in the postseason, they need offensive production from a third scorer -- either Cook or Sulaimon -- and consistent rebounding from Jefferson to do some damage in the postseason.
If Kelly Returns
The best guess -- and it's just a guess -- is that Kelly will be back in early March, giving him some time work his way back into playing shape and giving the team time to readjust to his return.
The more games Duke can play with Kelly back in the lineup, the more it will benefit, not only because Kelly's impact will increase as he regains his rhythm and stamina, but because the team needs time to revert back to its early-season identity.
When Irving returned for the NCAA Tournament after missing three months of the season, he had only limited production in the first two games, and the Blue Devils were lucky to eke out a two-point win over Michigan in the second round. Irving was back to midseason form by the third round, scoring 28 points, but the Blue Devils had not fully adapted to having him back as an integral part of the team, losing to underdog Arizona by 16 points.
It behooves Duke to get in as many games as possible after Kelly returns, which puts a premium on advancing to the ACC tournament title game and winning early-round NCAA Tournament games. The Blue Devils should get better with time after Kelly's return.
If Kelly is not available in the postseason or available on only a limited basis, the matchups in the NCAA Tournament will be a major factor for the Blue Devils.
If they run into a team with a lot of quickness and talent on the perimeter, like the Lehigh team that stunned Duke in the first round last season, it could neutralize much of their perimeter offense on which Duke relies. If their opponent has two strong post threats offensively, that could be a problem if Kelly is not there to guard one of them.
Part of the blueprint for Duke's March Madness success is based on the seedings and the draw. That is always the case, but it is accentuated in Duke's case if Kelly is not in top form and not fully integrated back into the offense.
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