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NCAA Basketball ACC BasketballDuke Blue Devils

Duke Blue Devils: Ryan Kelly Injury Shows Instant Void In First Loss

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The loss of Ryan Kelly to a foot injury has already severely hurt the Duke Blue Devils, and things are only going to get worse before they get better.

The Blue Devils lost 84-76 to the North Carolina State Wolfpack in their first game without their senior forward in the line-up. Duke was unable to contain the Wolfpack’s impressive frontcourt of C.J. Leslie and his 25 points and six rebounds along with Richard Howell and his 16 points and 18 rebounds.

The loss of Kelly hurts the Blue Devils in a number of areas including offense, defense, leadership, and experience. Perhaps most important, is the 6-foot-10, 230lbs forward’s ability to take over games on his own. It was only a week ago the senior recorded a career scoring performance with 22 points, after going 5 for 7 from three-point territory in Duke’s conference schedule opener.

Kelly has no timetable for a return remaining out indefinitely, while Seth Davis sent out tweets earlier today suggesting he could miss the remainder of the season.  If that is the case then the Blue Devils might have just kissed their championship aspirations good-bye. However, if the forward does manage to return, whatever he’s able to provide Duke will help towards a potential title run.

He leaves a void of 13.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.5 assists the Blue Devils will have to find a way to fill. Kelly is ranked fifth in the conference in shot blocking which makes his absence as a defensive presence the hardest thing Duke will have to replace. Freshman Amile Jefferson and Junior Josh Hairston will share the bulk of Kelly’s minutes, but they won’t be able to fill the void left by the senior.

Kelly has taken a lot of pressure off the Blue Devils four other starters. Teams couldn’t aggressively attack Mason Plumlee on the defensive end without risking Kelly burning them. A large part of Plumlee’s breakout season has been because Kelly has helped take the pressure off his frontcourt teammate on both ends of the floor. Plumlee’s a rebounding machine but he wouldn’t be averaging a double-double if the opposition didn’t have to worry about Kelly as well. The amount of double-teams that will be thrown at Plumlee is also about to increase since teams no longer have to worry about Kelly knocking down a jump-shot after a kick out.

The trio of guards have also had life easier with Kelly on the court. When Plumlee subs out of the line-up, the opposition’s defensive pressure on the perimeter hasn’t ramped up because they can’t afford to ignore the Kelly’s interior presence. Quinn Cook is the team’s X-factor but he’ll now receive more defensive focus with one less offensive weapon to worry about. Who knows how healthy Seth Curry is at this point, but his life is about to get even harder without the opponent having to be concerned with where Kelly is on the floor.

Duke was perfect with Kelly in the line-up; they could attack from all positions regardless of what end of the court they were at. With the senior gone, it took one game to prove the Blue Devils are no longer perfect after losing their first game of the season. Kelly solidified the team; his heart and hustle would have played a major factor if he were able to play against the Wolfpack. There is no way Howell finishes with 18 rebounds or Leslie records 25 points if Kelly is able to go in the game. In fact, given the stronger team chemistry Duke had compared to the Wolfpack, it’s likely the Blue Devils even pull out the win. Now Duke will struggle to gel as they attempt to replace Kelly, and the Wolfpack will come closer together after pulling off the upset over their state rival.

North Carolina State blew the doors wide open in the conference with their victory. By doing so, they showed the Blue Devils officially have a void they aren’t going to be able to fill.

Michael covers ACC and Big East basketball along with the Toronto Raptors for Rant Sports, you can follow him on Twitter @MichaelxRoberts