RALEIGH, N.C.—The Blue Devils’ first loss of the season to N.C. State was eerily reminiscent of the last time they had lost a game—a defeat at the hands of 15th-seeded Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64. Both times, the absence of senior captain Ryan Kelly left a gaping hole in Duke’s frontcourt.
Pleased with the way the Blue Devils fought in the face of adversity—facing Kelly’s absence and a raucous road environment at PNC Arena—head coach Mike Krzyzewski described his team without Kelly in just a few words. “You’re different,” he said. “You’re just different.”
On the offensive end, the Blue Devils were able to account for Kelly’s absence in Saturday’s 84-76 loss to the Wolfpack. Junior Josh Hairston and freshman Amile Jefferson picked up the majority of Kelly’s minutes. The duo combined for 18 points, nine rebounds and two blocks on the afternoon, which mirrors the 17.0 points Kelly averaged in Duke’s first two conference games and was actually an improvement on the forward’s rebounding average of 5.4 on the season.
Both Hairston and Jefferson played their best basketball of the season. Jefferson was particularly impressive in his short stint on the floor. He notched 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, adding four rebounds and two blocks, but his aggression on the defensive end ultimately got the best of him when he fouled out in just 12 minutes of action.
“It was big. I thought both of those guys played well,” senior Mason Plumlee said. “But both of those big positions have to get better. It was good, but it was not good enough, myself included. I think we definitely lost those matchups on the inside.”
N.C. State took advantage of Duke’s interior defense in the second half, controlling the paint from the opening whistle. After being held to six points and four rebounds in the first half, Wolfpack forward Richard Howell was a one-man wrecking crew after halftime, finishing with 16 points and 18 rebounds and largely neutralizing Plumlee on the defensive end. After he grabbed eight rebounds in the first half, Plumlee—a National Player of the Year candidate—had to scrap for his 10th double-double of the season and did not grab his first rebound of the second half until the 11:42 mark.
Hairston and Jefferson fared no better on the defensive end. The pair was responsible for N.C. State’s C.J. Leslie, and the 6-foot-9 forward showed off his jump shot and arsenal of post moves against the smaller defenders en route to a game-high 25 points, 14 of which came after halftime.
“Ryan does an amazing job on defense, so Josh and I really wanted to pick him up there,” Jefferson said. “A lot of people think it’s the scoring, but it’s the defense that makes Ryan special, being able to be a team defender.”
Many expected Kelly’s injury to result in more minutes for Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee, but even without Kelly in the lineup, Murphy and Plumlee managed just three minutes apiece, all of which came in the second half. Murphy’s absence from the rotation was especially conspicuous against an N.C. State team with size at all five positions. The 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman was expected to start for Duke at the small forward position this year with the purpose of guarding some of the bigger wing players in the ACC. Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon was assigned to the Wolfpack’s Scott Wood and T.J. Warren, giving up a reasonable size advantage. Sulaimon made Wood and Warren work for difficult shots, but the pair combined for 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. On the offensive end, Sulaimon’s struggles continued, finishing 0-of-10 from the field.
As Duke prepares for its next conference tilt against Georgia Tech Thursday night, it will once again face the prospect of playing without Kelly, who is sidelined indefinitely with his injury. The Blue Devils will also be monitoring the injury status of Seth Curry, who left the game with 3:14 remaining after slipping on the floor and rolling his ankle.
With the team’s captains continuing to suffer through nagging injuries, Duke is going to be forced to embrace a different rotation. The Blue Devils’ fate may be decided by the play of guys like Jefferson, Hairston, Murphy and Marshall Plumlee as the team enters the heart of its ACC schedule more than a little banged up.
“We’re better than our parts when we have all of our parts together. If you lose a part—Seth, Ryan and Mason especially—there’s going to be hiccups,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s just the way it is.”