DURHAM — In the aftermath of Dukes 79-76 victory against Miami, a new question emerged: Just how good can the Blue Devils be?
We could have been good, and we could have made a run, but with Ryan, we were playing as well as anyone in the country before he went down, Mason Plumlee said. With him back, we still have work to do, but this is just game one. Our ceiling is a lot higher.
Before Ryan Kelly went down with his right foot injury on Jan. 8, Duke was 15-0 and ranked No. 1. The Blue Devils had played the toughest non-conference schedule, beating three top-five teams (No. 3 Kentucky, No. 2 Louisville, and No. 4 Ohio State) and a two other tournament-bound teams in Minnesota and VCU.
But Kellys injury changed the team, as Duke had to rely on a combination of Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson to fill the minutes. But neither could come close to filling Kellys role and stretch opposing defenses with an outside shot. Still, adjusting on the fly, Duke went 9-4 without their stretch four.
We were bailing water making sure the ship stayed afloat, and we bailed enough to stay with a really good ranking, and obviously were going to have a great RPI because of our schedule, Krzyzewski said of his No. 3-ranked Blue Devils.
Ive been saying for two months and the last 13 games that weve been missing one of the best players in the country, and tonight he showed that, Krzyzewski said of Kelly.
And Kelly certainly did, scoring a career-high 36 points thanks to 10-of-14 shooting from the field, including 7-of-9 from 3-point range, giving Duke yet another win against a top-five opponent. Despite not playing for nearly two months and practicing only once, Kelly was able to play 32 minutes, never getting too winded.
Honestly, more than anything it was just a matter of whether I was going to be able to hold up with my breathing because I hadnt played in a game in a long time, he said. Being in a game is a lot different than being in practice or anything you can do. I think I held up all right.
Hairston, who scored two points, pulled down two defensive rebounds and was whistled for three fouls in 10 minutes, had only logged less court time in two contests during Kellys absence (nine minutes against both North Carolina and Miami).
Meanwhile Jefferson, who had started seven of the 13 games Kelly missed, did not play at all.
But Duke is undoubtedly better with Kelly posting up, knocking down 3s and locking down on defense. And the Blue Devils have a few more weeks to figure out just how good they can be.
This win is a huge win for us, Krzyzewski said. The thing it does for us is it gives us a chance over the next few weeks to transition into the NCAA tournament. Were just running a little bit different race than anybody else right now. It doesnt mean everything is okay, but its a lot better.