Blue Devils make adjustments on the road vs. Pack
For top-ranked Duke, life without injured senior forward Ryan Kelly begins with likely their toughest road trip of the season.
If the Blue Devils have any misgivings about their circumstance and the challenge that awaits them today at No. 20 N.C. State (noon, ESPN), they didn’t reveal it on Friday.
Duke has won neutral-site games over two teams — No. 3 Louisville, No. 8 Minnesota — currently in the top 10 and claimed a home win over No. 15 Ohio State.
But for the first time this season, and the first game since Kelly was sidelined indefinitely with a right foot injury, Duke (15-0, 2-0 ACC) will play on an opponent’s home court.
“These are the most fun games to win,” Duke senior Mason Plumlee said. “The neutral-site games are good — playing in the Bahamas, playing at the Izod Center (in New Jersey). These games are the best, going over there. Their fans are crazy, a little obnoxious. We enjoy that.”
While Duke’s game at Chapel Hill against rival North Carolina regularly is its toughest road trip, the Wolfpack (13-2, 2-0 ACC) are the only other ACC team currently ranked in the Top 25. Particularly after a home loss to Miami kept UNC (9-5, 0-2) winless in the ACC, Duke and N.C. State are considered the league’s top two teams.
It’s not exactly the setting a team would pick to adjust things after the loss of a dynamic player. The 6-11 Kelly is averaging 13.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and has made 52 percent of his 3-point shots while amassing a team-best 25 blocked shots this season.
But after suffering a right foot injury in Tuesday night’s 68-40 win over Clemson, Kelly will be sidelined for multiple games.
In his place, 6-7 junior Josh Hairston will get the start alongside the 6-10 Plumlee down low. Hairston, normally a reserve who has covered valuable minutes for Duke this season, finds himself with different expectations.
“You never want it to happen this way,” Hairston said. “But I’m going to make the most of it and take advantage of it and not let my teammates down.”
Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski, who works with the team’s big men, stressed to Hairston and freshman reserve forwards Amile Jefferson, Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee to not expand their games at the detriment of the team.
“They don’t have to play like Ryan,” Wojciechowski said. “There is nobody on our team that can play like Ryan can play in terms of his experience and the skills he brings to the table. But they can be really effective players.
“We need them, first and foremost, to play defense and to rebound the basketball. Offensively, to keep it simple and play off the other guys. Be opportunistic on the offensive end.”
Getting such an important start, on his 21st birthday no less, puts Hairston in a different light for the Blue Devils. But he regularly seeks the counsel of former teammates Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving, who were both NBA first-round picks.
Hairston also said the Duke family still in Durham has him mentally ready for this challenge.
“I don’t know how a lot of people feel about me stepping into this role, but I know my teammates have my back,” Hairston said. “The coaches have my back. Everyone has been very supportive. Probably my biggest supporter has been Ryan.”
Duke will not ask Hairston, or anyone, to totally replace Kelly in the rotation.
“It will be a game-by-game situation based on who is playing the best at that moment,” Wojciechowski said. “I don’t anticipate us having a 30-minute-a-game player at the four. It will depend upon matchups and play during that game.”
Before Kelly’s injury, all five of Duke’s starters owned double-figure scoring averages. With the exception of Hairston today, that will be the same.
So Hairston, Jefferson, Murphy and Marshall Plumlee, when in the game, know they don’t have to push hard on offense in order for Duke to win.
Seth Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook and Mason Plumlee can handle that.
Hairston is confident he can make his best contribution on the defensive end.
“My communication with Mason as grown this year,” Hairston said. “If you listen on the defensive end, we are constantly communicating. Me and Mason, especially (vs. N.C. State), our communication has to be key. With shooters like (Scott) Wood, we have to be able to step out and help Seth or Rasheed or Tyler or whoever is guarding him.”
A year ago, when Kelly missed the ACC and NCAA tournaments with a more serious right foot injury, Duke lost two of the three games without him.
Mason Plumlee doesn’t foresee a repeat this year.
“It will be an adjustment, but we will adjust,” he said. “We’ll do better this year than we did last year. We have to get guys open. We still have a lot of good players. Everybody has to pick it up.”