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Losing Kelly isn't Duke basketball's only problem

It’s hard to say how things went downhill so quickly.

Certainly the loss of Ryan Kelly has left a huge vacancy in the Duke lineup, but on paper the Blue Devils still have a National Player of the Year candidate in Mason Plumlee, a dynamic point guard in Quinn Cook and one of the country’s sweeter shooters in Seth Curry.

Yet instead of a slight step back from a team that was earning every ounce of its No. 1 reputation, that was absorbing every punch a very tough schedule could throw at it, Wednesday night’s blowout loss at Miami was more reminiscent of an early-season rout at Ohio State last season that portended a difficult year and a very early tournament exit in March.

Just days after an enthusiastic Mike Krzyzewski became an Internet meme sensation with his charge onto the court to hug Plumlee, the veteran head coach was reduced to a disappointed GIF as the Hurricanes imposed their will on the Blue Devils for 40 minutes in a 90-63 win at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Fla.

The impact of Kelly’s absence cannot be overstated, especially against an opponent like Miami, which is one of the few teams in the country that possesses a player who, like Kelly, can create a matchup nightmare for opponents. Hurricane power forward Kenny Kadji poured in 22 points on just 11 shots, showed his shooting range with a 2-for-3 performance from beyond the arc, asserted his versatility with a coast-to-coast, press-breaking dunk late in the second half and demonstrated matchup awareness by demanding the ball in the post when Duke tried to cover him with the much smaller Amile Jefferson.

Kelly’s loss also takes one of Krzyzewski’s primary leaders off the floor. Although Kelly is not especially demonstrative, he is a cerebral, steady hand when he plays, and that sort of presence might have proven crucial at several junctures when Duke needed a big play to stem the Hurricane tide in a hostile and raucous road arena.

But for all the value that Kelly provided before being confined to crutches, Plumlee emphasized after the game that the team needs to move on and adjust to life without its power forward.

“We’re just a different team, and we can’t keep pointing to that after every game,” the senior said. “We’ve got to move on. You’ve got to go with what you have.”

It would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that Kelly’s injury is the only thing that has caused the Blue Devils to drop two of three games bookending an unconvincing home win over a rebuilding Georgia Tech squad.

Fatigue might also be creeping up for a Duke team that has counted heavily on its starters for playing time and production. Two of Duke’s stalwarts—Mason Plumlee and Quinn Cook—entered Wednesday’s game ranked in the top seven in the ACC in percentage of minutes played. Seth Curry ranks in the top 30 despite his nagging injuries, as does Rasheed Sulaimon even though the freshman has never faced the rigors of a full college season.

In the last three games, all four non-Kelly starters have seen precipitous drops in shooting percentage. Sulaimon has had the smallest deviation, falling just 7.9 percentage points. Curry has fallen from 47.4 percent to 37.5 percent, for a 9.9 percent drop. Cook and Plumlee have both approached 20-percent dips, as the point guard has fallen from 45.3 percent with Kelly to just 27.0 percent without. And Plumlee has dropped from 61.6 percent all the way to 42.2 percent.

Against Miami, the formerly formidable Cook-Curry-Plumlee triumvirate combined to shoot just 6-for-37. Cook and Curry even spent substantial time on the bench, with Curry seeing just 22 minutes of action and Cook playing just 29 minutes.

“It starts with us,” Plumlee said. “Coach has said that since the fall, and we have to play better for us to have a chance to win. It starts with those three guys.”

Without the leadership of that trio—both in terms of scoring and morale—Kelly’s absence looms larger. The backcourt duo’s recent scoring issues have also exposed problems on defense as well. Cook’s small stature and Curry’s injury issues have reduced their effectiveness of late despite both players’ defensive tenacity. Georgia Tech shooting guard Chris Bolden set a career high with 20 points against Duke Thursday, and Miami senior Durand Scott—who also plays Curry’s position—posted a 25-point effort in Thursday’s win that represented his highest point total since his freshman season three years ago.

Working often against Cook, Miami point guard Shane Larkin shredded Duke’s efforts at a full-court press, especially late in the game, leading to a number of easy transition dunks and 3-pointers. Larkin’s performance—which also included a career-high 10 rebounds—came just two games after N.C. State point guard Lorenzo Brown tied a career high with 13 assists against the Blue Devils.

Some of the younger players played admirably even despite their elders’ struggles, but a 6-for-11 night from Jefferson and a 5-for-8 performance from Alex Murphy, while impressive, will not be enough to keep the Blue Devils afloat as they try to navigate a treacherous ACC season.

The recent skid for Duke has them sounding somewhat like last season’s squad, which struggled for much of the season to find its identity. The cohesion that carried the Blue Devils with clutch play and resolve through the early part of the season has begun to come apart at the seams, leaving the team once again working through an identity crisis.

“I think we have to improve as a unit and find the identity of the team with the guys that we have right now, which is something obviously that we haven’t done yet,” Murphy said.

Despite the incipient similarity, it’s premature to say that this year’s Duke team has fallen completely apart. Miami and N.C. State are two of the better teams in the conference, and the Blue Devils understandably will require an adjustment period in the wake of Kelly’s injury. This squad likely won’t end up as the team that looked invincible early in the season or as the one that just got utterly dominated on a hostile floor. The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between, and it at least sounds like the team is prepared to remain united even in the face of a rough stretch.

“These are still my brothers,” Jefferson said. “I’ll still go to war with them any day, and I’ll never quit on them.”

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