Seth Curry, with his one good leg, has played a key role in Duke's success without Ryan Kelly. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY
With three weeks (and six games) left in the ACC regular season, Duke stands at 22-3 and 9-3 in the ACC, good for second place.
How do the coaches feel about that? Pretty darn good.
Assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said yesterday on his radio show that, internally, Duke is proud of what they've accomplished in the 42 days since Ryan Kelly's Jan. 8 right foot injury. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski also said roughly the same thing on the coaches' teleconference.
"The story for my team is the fact that we are competing and we are doing a good job, in
fact, a terrific job, and we have continued to win at a very high level without Ryan," Krzyzewski said. "The story isn't that we lost. The story is how much we've won. My guys have done a terrific job in doing that."
And he's right. This is not an overly talented Duke team. This isn't 2001, when one future NBA player (Carlos Boozer) was replaced with another future NBA player (Chris Duhon) and joined three other NBA players on the court. This isn't even 2010, when a senior point guard (Jon Scheyer) ran the team with three future NBA players (Lance Thomas, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith) and the ultimate, late-blooming X factor (Brian Zoubek).
This is Mason Plumlee and one-legged Seth Curry leading a bunch of young players at various stages of their development.
And when Plumlee had his worst game of the year at Maryland, the team lost. But, to borrow a Duke buzzword, the Blue Devils did fight until the end, erasing an eight-point deficit in the last two minutes and giving themselves a chance to win.
On the surface, the loss to a 6-6 Maryland team that ranks 62nd in RPI doesn't look too good. But games aren't played in a vacuum, and Duke had gone through a physical and emotional ringer in the week leading up to that game (those who refuse to believe playing three games in seven days, with a blizzard and high-stakes rivalry thrown in, is taxing are just flat wrong. Sorry, the truth hurts sometimes). A win would have been one of Duke's biggest accomplishments to date. But with the loss came...
"A dose of realization," Krzyzewski said.
Duke is far from the most talented team in the ACC, yet the Blue Devils are second in the conference and still in a position to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Chances are catching 21-3, 12-0 Miami are slim. The Hurricanes only have two more road games—at Wake Forest and at Duke—and host last-place Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Clemson to close at the regular season. I don't see three losses in there, and it might even take more than that for Duke to leap-frog the Hurricanes (trips to Virginia and North Carolina certainly could result in losses).
Help COULD be on the way. Kelly COULD return this season, though he hasn't reached a point in his rehabilitation where it's a given that he will be back. IF he's coming back, it will be before the NCAA Tournament, Krzyzewski said (perhaps because Duke learned the hard way with Kyrie Irving in 2011 that it takes time for a team to acclimate to a returning player).
With Kelly, the whole team gets better. The space he creates on the floor offensively gives everyone more open looks and opportunities to score. Defensively, he takes some of the enormous load off of Plumlee and acts as the floor captain, directing players through screens so open paths to the basket that doomed Duke at Maryland happen less often.
And if Kelly doesn't come back? Well, then it will be up to the group that has gone 7-3 in the ACC and maintained the No. 1 ranking in the RPI.