Is a Healthy Duke the Best Team in College Basketball?

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIMarch 2, 2013

Here's what we know to be true about Duke:

  • When senior forward Ryan Kelly plays, the 2012-13 Blue Devils are 16-0.
  • Through the nonconference portion of its schedule, Duke ranked among the nation's top 15 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.
  • On Saturday night, the Blue Devils defeated fifth-ranked Miami, 79-76, in Durham, avenging an earlier 27-point loss to the Hurricanes.
  • The Miami game was Kelly's first in almost two months. He scored a career-high 36 points on 7-of-9 three-point shooting.

To proclaim No. 3 Duke "back" or "resurrected" or "reborn" or whatever would be the buzziest, most seductive conclusion. Of course, nothing is ever that simple, and a one-game sample size is often fool's gold.

But in our quest for calm and perspective, let's also take this moment to acknowledge Duke's potential.

Over an eight-game stretch that spanned from mid-November to early December, these Blue Devils beat Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville, Ohio State and Temple. It's possible that all six of those teams will make the NCAA tournament; two of them (Louisville and Ohio State) are legitimate title contenders.

More impressive still was the fact that Duke—a team that finished just 70th in adjusted defensive efficiency a year ago—held all six opponents to less than 1.05 points per possession.

The 6'11" Ryan Kelly is widely acknowledged as an ace floor spacer and deadly spot-up shooter, but it was his defense that made this team go over the season's first two months.

RealGM's Dan Hanner did some excellent number-crunching on Kelly's defensive impact about a month ago, but even a cursory glance at Duke's peripherals reveals how important the Raleigh-born big man had been to the Blue Devils D.

Without Kelly, Duke allowed three different conference opponents to score more than 1.10 points per possession, all while backsliding to 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency. In the 10 seasons since Ken Pomeroy began tracking that statistic, no eventual champion has finished worse than 19th.

Simply put, Duke didn't look like a team capable of winning a title. Toward the tail end of Kelly's convalescence, even the Final Four felt like a stretch.

Now, we still don't know if Kelly's defensive contributions post-injury will mirror what he gave the Blue Devils earlier this year. Based on my hand calculations, Miami scored a little north of 1.10 points per possession on Saturday night.

So it's not as if Duke was especially convincing on the defensive end with Kelly back in the rotation.

And no matter how Kelly fares the rest of the way, it's unlikely the Blue Devils will improve on their woefully inept rebounding. Duke, a team that ranks 240th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbed an anemic 16.6 percent of its misses on Saturday night.

Kelly was never much of a board-cleaner for this team, and unless his presence somehow frees up fellow forward Mason Plumlee, Duke probably heads into March as one of the worst rebounding teams in the tournament.

But those are the caveats, and Saturday was meant as an homage to potential.

When Kelly went down on Jan. 8, Duke was in its fourth straight week as the AP No. 1. By the most commonly cited metric, the Blue Devils were the best team in the country.

One game doesn't restore that label or reconstitute what once was; it simply reminds us of what can be. After the win, a breathless but proud Duke player told ESPN sideline reporter Doris Burke, "We're going in the right direction at the right time."

It was the proper synopsis for a game that, while encouraging and cathartic, warned against hyperbole.

The best part is, it came from Ryan Kelly.


Note: All statistics courtesy of unless otherwise noted.