The idea that once senior forward Ryan Kelly would return, it would solve all of Duke's issues and Mike Krzyzewski's team would once again be the nation's best seemed a bit outlandish.
Kelly is good, but c'mon, his legend was growing like Willis Reed.
Then Kelly dropped a career-high 36 points in his return on Saturday night to help No. 3 Duke get revenge on No. 5 Miami with a 79-76 win in Durham.
OK, point conceded, he makes a big impact.
Kelly put forth an unbelievable performance that was one of the great moments of this college basketball season. You don't sit out for two months and then just return like that. You're not supposed to be able to do that.
But he did.
Not all of Duke's issues are now resolved, but Kelly helps the Blue Devils immensely. Let's grade the critical conference win for the Blue Devils.
Kelly could not have been better. His jumper is apparently the equivalent of riding a bike.
He didn't move all that well, but pre-foot injury Ryan Kelly didn't move all that well to begin with. All he needs to do is be able to knock down open jumpers and help spread the floor for Duke.
The 6'11" forward did more than that, showing his entire repertoire as he was able to not only knock in catch-and-shoot jumpers, but he also scored off the drive, scored with his back to the basket and got to the free-throw line (where he made 9-of-12).
His impact was felt right away and saved the Blue Devils in the first half, when he made 7-of-10 from the field and the rest of his teammates shot just 6-of-17. Without Kelly, this might have turned into a repeat of what happened in Coral Gables.
In the second half, Miami figured out that it was probably a good idea to stick to the guy who cannot miss, and Kelly only got up four more shots after the half. He made three of them and also added seven boards and two steals to his stat line.
That's an A++ performance whether you're returning from an injury or starred all year.
The Blue Devils offense without Kelly was still pretty good, but it wasn't as consistent. For instance, Duke's worst offensive performance efficiency-wise with Kelly was 1.03 points per possession. Without him, the Blue Devils were under that mark four times.
Kelly's absence put a lot more pressure on Mason Plumlee, and either Seth Curry or Rasheed Sulaimon had to be on for the team to play well on that end.
Kelly, obviously, makes life a lot easier for all of them. In the second half, Miami could no longer send a double team at Plumlee, because with Kelly, Duke can surround Plumlee with four shooters.
Again, it's not like the Blue Devils were incompetent offensively otherwise, but Kelly's presence makes them one of the most difficult teams in the country to guard. Plumlee had only 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, but expect his production—or, at least, efficiency—to go up moving forward.
The formula to beat Duke's defense sans Kelly was to spread the floor and attack Duke's guards off the dribble. That was a lot of what Miami did in the 90-63 win in Coral Gables, and the teams that have had success since against Duke did the same.
The perception was that Kelly would help fix that issue because of his defensive rotations.
Kelly helped on Saturday night—he took a charge, for instance—but Shane Larkin still had few problems penetrating the Duke defense.
The other Hurricane who killed the Blue Devils in Coral Gables was Kenny Kadji, who went off for 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting against the spot that Kelly would usually fill. Kadji's line on Saturday: 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting.
Kelly isn't moving all that well, but there aren't a lot of 4s in college basketball who can make him pay. Against the teams with an inside-out 4 who can put the ball on the floor, Kelly could struggle.
Where Kelly does help Duke is with his defensive smarts, rotations and understanding of what Coach K wants. That was there on Saturday, but Duke will still struggle to contain penetrating guards going forward—with or without Kelly.
Duke has its edge back.
That might be the most critical aspect of Kelly's return—how much more confident this team is with him on the court.
The Blue Devils did not look so confident on Thursday in a loss to Virginia, but the team that showed up versus the No. 5 Hurricanes certainly had a different degree of swagger.
Even if Kelly hobbles through the rest of the season, just his presence could be enough to make Duke a much more dangerous team.
National-title good? I don't think so, but they're now in the conversation, and they wouldn't be close without Ryan Kelly.