DURHAM — Signs of positive growth were in abundance during Duke's 89-68 win over Boston College. Both of the Blue Devils' freshmen set new career-highs for scoring. Mason Plumlee continued to bounce back from a tough last week and posted his 16th double-double of the year. But the most encouraging development happened after the game in the locker room, where Ryan Kelly met with the media for the first time since his Jan. 8 foot injury.
It's no longer a question of if Kelly is coming back. That's a given, and the only thing left to be determined is when.
My foot is feeling good, and as this week progresses I think I can become more and more a part of practice, he said. Obviously I want to be ready for the (NCAA) Tournament, that's the biggest thing, but it would certainly be very nice as well to get out there for my senior night.
Duke hosts Virginia Tech on March 5 for senior night, a date just about a week away. Kelly has yet to go live in practice and still hasn't done much running on the court, so amazing things would have to happen for him to play this week, he said.
Even head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has been cautious about projecting a potential Kelly return, was optimistic Sunday.
Ryan is going to be back soon, Krzyzewski said. What does soon mean? I don't know, but he's going to be back.
After Kelly injured his right foot in the Jan. 8, No. 6 Duke (24-3, 11-3 in the ACC) was forced to find a new identity, inserting new sets and finding another floor captain on defense. It's been a learning process, with losses at N.C. State, Miami and Maryland, but the successes greatly outnumber the setbacks. And Boston College was the latest example of success.
A 12-0 run early in the game was enough to ensure that Boston College (12-15, 4-10 in the ACC) wouldn't be able to compete with Duke on the scoreboard. The Eagles only have seven scholarship players, all of whom are freshmen and sophomores, and they went six minutes without a field goal in the first half. Boston College finished the opening period with more turnovers (13) than field goals (10).
Unfortunately for us I didn't think we handled the first trip to this building very well for most of the guys, Boston College head coach Steve Donahue said. For the first time this year we didn't play with a lot of poise on both sides of the ball.
Duke shot 62.1 percent in the first half and built a 51-27 halftime lead, its largest of the year. Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson led the offense and scored the last 19 points of the opening half. Sulaimon scored seven points on three consecutive Duke possessions and then set Jefferson up nicely at the rim for an and-one 3-point play on the offensive set to give Duke a 42-18 lead. Jefferson added another old-fashioned 3-point play on the next possession, and Sulaimon followed with a 3 and an and-one finish of his own.
Sulaimon led all scorers with 27 points, a new career high on 10-of-15 shooting. Jefferson also bested his previous career-high and finished with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
It's been really fun to see different guys step up, Kelly said. It's been really fun to see our team change and the identity change in a good way.
When Kelly does come back, Duke will have to make sure to continue doing things that have worked well in the past month (set plays for Seth Curry and Plumlee, for example). That's the main reason why Krzyzewski has said Kelly needs to be back before the NCAA Tournament: the team will need time to readjust.
I think it'll be a smooth transition, Plumlee said. I know everybody's talking about Kyrie [Irving] and Nolan [Smith] (in 2011), but you had one guy playing point guard and then another guy came in and played point guard. And that position is so different from playing the four for us.
Kelly has been working to strengthen his hips and lateral movements on the floor. He's also been getting shots up, he said, trying to regain the form that made him Duke's most accurate 3-point shooter. It's been a gradual process that has taken time. But now, finally, the Blue Devils can see progress.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley