CHAPEL HILL — With the 69-53 dismantling of North Carolina that capped the regular season, Duke improved to 18-0 when Ryan Kelly plays. Before he was injured on Jan 8. and missed 13 games, Duke was 15-0, ranked No. 1 and looked like the best team in the country.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t think his Blue Devils were the undisputed best overall team then. But he did think they were the best in one way.
“We have a good team, but we had the best chemistry in those 15 games,” he said. “They really enjoyed playing with one another, they made each other better, and we’re trying to develop that again.”
The reintegration of Kelly, and the reconfiguration of the team’s chemistry, is a work in progress. It has looked a little bit different in each of the past three games.
In his first game back, the March 2 win over Miami, Kelly was so dominant in the first half that the rest of the Blue Devils spent too much time watching him and not enough time focusing on their own efforts. Kelly had 20 points at the break against the Hurricanes – no other Duke player had more than four.
Against Virginia Tech March 5, the Blue Devils struggled to find rhythm on both ends of the floor for the first 20 minutes, leading the then last-place ACC team 38-35 at the break. Kelly again led the way with 14 points, while frontcourt teammate Mason Plumlee had just three. A stronger second-half performance followed, resulting in the 85-57 blowout. Kelly (18 points), Seth Curry (20), Plumlee (14) and Quinn Cook (14) all finished in double figures.
Saturday, Duke dominated the Tar Heels from the opening tip, and the 14-0 lead the Blue Devils built in the opening three minutes put the game out of reach. Curry had the hot hand Saturday, and, like he always does, Krzyzewski called plays for the in-rhythm shooter. Curry took advantage of his chances, hitting his first eight shots in a variety of ways (driving through the lane, sitting in the lane, turnaround jumpers coming of the baseline and a couple of 3s) for 18 first-half points.
Curry was able to put on his sharpshooting display while Kelly was largely a nonfactor on the offensive end. The smaller, quicker P.J. Hairston drew him into early foul trouble, as Kelly picked up his second foul with 8:46 left in the first and then his third with 1:53 remaining before the break.
Kelly played 11 first-half minutes – the fewest he has played since returning from his right-foot injury.
“He’s tired right now,” Krzyzewski said of Kelly.
That didn’t derail Duke. With Curry drawing more attention on the perimeter, the Blue Devils went inside to Plumlee. The third member of the senior trio scored Duke’s first 10 points of the second half and finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds, his most complete, dominant performance since posting 30 points and nine rebounds Feb. 7 against N.C. State.
“Ryan really exploded the last two games, so I knew I was going to have touches inside,” Plumlee said. “And, obviously, they started a smaller lineup, so we knew that would be there at some point in the game.”
It’s easier to quantify the offensive output of a team, but the fact that Duke held the 16th-highest scoring team in the country 22 points below their average shouldn’t be overlooked. The Tar Heels did miss some open shots, but Kelly’s impact as the vocal coordinator of the defense (calling out switches, for example) was a factor as well.
The Blue Devils should be encouraged that, during their experimental phase, they have gone 3-0 with a win over the first-place ACC team (Miami) and the third (UNC). All three seniors have taken control of a half (or, in Kelly’s case, an entire game), and Cook has done a fine job distributing the ball.
The Blue Devils will have somewhere between one and three games in the ACC tournament to keep tinkering with their lineup. The more games they play, the better position they will be in heading to the NCAA tournament.
“The only way to develop instincts is to perform together,” Krzyzewski said. “And it doesn’t just happen in practice, it has to happen in games. We have to keep getting more comfortable.”
Duke looks capable of winning the ACC tournament right now. If the Blue Devils do so – and keep getting better – it’s not hard to imagine them making a run at one more title this year.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley