Ryan Kelly might only have been back for one game, and Duke might only have earned one win on the night, but their recent victory against the Miami Hurricanes proved that the Blue Devils still have what it takes to be a legitimate NCAA title contender.
The star forward Kelly exploded for 36 points en route to a 79-76 victory over Miami, which he single-handedly earned for the Blue Devils on the night. And whilst it was only one win and Kelly's first game back since getting injured against Clemson in early January, the significance of the win cannot go unnoticed and uncredited for both the player and the team as a whole.
It seems that, with a healthy squad, Duke are a legitimate threat this year.
Miami refused to go away in this game despite the heroics of Kelly—they proved themselves to be a serious player come the madness that will ensue later this month.
But for all their brilliance, Duke were simply better—just like they were before Kelly's injury momentarily derailed their run at the championship in 2013.
Before Kelly's injury, the Blue Devils were in a league of their own.
They had sat atop the AP Top 25 Poll for four straight weeks and had not been defeated all season, despite playing some more than capable opposition.
As Bleacher Report's Avi Wolfman-Arent notes:
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.
The schedule and opposition that Duke faced up until Kelly's injury, which they were undefeated against, were very strong and dominant. And yet, the Blue Devils emerged with a 15-0 record in hand and deserved to be called the best college basketball team in the country as a result.
Then came the injury to Kelly and all seemed lost for Duke, who continued to slip down the rankings with poor losses to top and bottom teams alike. Their inside play had no momentum, their perimeter work was poor and their defense didn't look like it could stop anything—let alone the No. 5 ranked Miami.
And then came Kelly, and well, we know what happened next.
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Duke's Ryan Kelly made a heck of an impact in his return on Saturday. His shot chart. http://t.co/ie5xoL4ZHt2013-3-3 14:01:29
What his return showed to Duke, and the college basketball world, was that the Blue Devils are a legitimate title contender with him back in the mix.
Their defense will make stops and their offense can have multiple scoring threats to watch out for—both of which were seemingly non-existent in Kelly's absence.
As a result, they're certainly contenders come March Madness. They're perhaps the best team in college basketball at the moment, given what we've seen so far.
Some might not want to stretch it that far with Duke, saying that it's been just one game since Kelly returned, and they very nearly lost it at the end. Others will want to point out that without their star forward going for 36 points on the night—a level that he won't be able to achieve in every game this season—the Devils would have not been able to produce the offense required to win this game.
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Ryan Kelly career-high 36 points for Duke, which is 4-0 against top-5 opponents this season2013-3-3 01:15:41
Yet the reality is that Duke's contender status is more than just one game; it's more than just Kelly's return and the 36 points against Miami Hurricanes this week.
It's about the 16 games that they've played with him on their side this year and the 16 wins they've had in the process. It's the fact that no team has beaten Duke with Ryan Kelly on hand—not even one of the four top-five teams they've played so far this year.
And until that happens—until Duke is defeated with Kelly on hand—they have to be considered genuine NCAA title contenders once March Madness rolls around.
They might even be the favorites to win it all.
Are Duke, with Ryan Kelly, the best team in the country?
Comment below or hit me up on Twitter: