Life without Kelly no death sentence for Devils, Krzyzewski
Duke’s time without Ryan Kelly started with an unpleasant trip to Raleigh.
The low point of the experience came at Miami, where the ACC-leading Hurricanes stomped the Blue Devils by 27 points.
Since then, though, Duke has found a way to thrive with its new lineup.
Tonight, the No. 4 Blue Devils carry a three-game winning streak into their second game with N.C. State, this one at Cameron Indoor Stadium (9 p.m., WRAL).
On Jan. 12, N.C. State beat the Blue Devils 84-76, handing them their first loss and knocking them from the nation’s No. 1 ranking.
Nine days later, in Coral Gables, Fla., Miami dominated Duke 90-63 and the Blue Devils knew things had to change in a hurry.
“When you lose by 30, you have to take a realistic look,” Duke senior center Mason Plumlee said. “We’ve been better since. Right or wrong, it happened and we’ve come back stronger since then.”
Despite playing the last six games without Kelly, a 6-11 senior forward who is sidelined with a right foot injury, Duke (19-2, 6-2) is in second place in the ACC. No. 8-ranked Miami (18-3, 9-0) leads the conference.
N.C. State (16-6, 5-4) was the preseason ACC favorite. But the Wolfpack, since that memorable win over Duke, have gone 2-4 and have lost their last three ACC games away from PNC Arena.
Duke brings a red-hot offense into tonight’s rematch with N.C. State. The Blue Devils have shot at least 52 percent in each of their last three games, all wins.
“After the Miami game we started to hit our stride with our new group,” Plumlee said. “Guys are comfortable in their roles with Ryan being out. I think we are playing differently and we’ve kind of accepted that’s the way we have to play.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils sharpness on offense has shown up as they have defeated Maryland, Wake Forest and Florida State since the loss at Miami.
“I think we responded well from (the Miami loss),” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve had 19 wins. We’ve been playing really hard the whole time with our schedule. So knowing how to play hard together, that’s the key thing. I think we’re learning to do that better now with this group without Ryan.
“We played really well on Saturday (at FSU). Wake played really well against us, but down the stretch we executed well. That was a good thing to see. Hopefully we can keep improving.”
Barring a dramatic improvement in Josh Hairston’s condition, the Blue Devils will have two players from their rotation absent tonight. Hairston hasn’t practiced since the Florida State game due to an infection that developed in his right arm.
The 6-7 junior forward was cut during the Wake Forest game and needed stitches. He played against FSU, but the infection set in since then. He’s been wearing a sling on his right arm.
Amile Jefferson, a wiry 6-8 freshman forward, has started for Duke in Kelly’s absence over the last four games. He has scored in double figures in four of the six games since Kelly was injured on Jan. 8.
If Hairston is out as expected, the main reserves behind Jefferson will be 6-8 redshirt freshman Alex Murphy and 6-11 redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee.
Murphy has more of a perimeter aspect to his game, although he’s not as polished or experienced as Kelly. Marshall Plumlee is a true, in-the-paint, big man.
His presence on the floor would likely cause his older brother, Mason, to shift to more of a power forward position.
No matter who is on the court, the Blue Devils will have to contain N.C. State’s athletic, productive frontcourt featuring 6-9 C.J. Leslie and 6-8 Richard Howell. Leslie averages a team-best 15.7 points per game while grabbing 7.5 rebounds. Howell scores 12.8 points and leads N.C. State with 10.9 rebounds per game.
Controlling them with two players out from the frontcourt rotation will be a challenge. But Duke has grown accustomed to such things.
“Every team’s different, depending on who you lose,” Mason Plumlee said. “You know it’s a part of the season, though. Every season I’ve been here, we’ve had someone go down with an injury. So you almost — I don’t want to say you anticipate it, but you know those things are going to happen, and you have to adjust.”