The Duke Blue Devils‘ championship hopes took a big hit last month when Ryan Kelly finally succumbed to a foot injury he tried playing through in a couple games at the start of January. The Blue Devils have “struggled” since Kelly’s departure, going 6-2 in that span, with both losses coming on the road against ranked ACC opponents (then 20th-ranked North Carolina State, and then 25th-ranked Miami (FL), and there is still no timetable for his return, so it begs the question: Can Duke win an NCAA Championship without him?
They were 15-0 before he went down with the injury, and his presence definitely helped spread the floor and create match-up nightmares for defenses. Kelly has connected on over 50% of his three-point shots for the season, tops on the Blue Devils, so teams had to try and account for his whereabouts all over the court rather than just underneath the basket. Even when your starting five also includes Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, losing a 6’11″, 230-pound forward who gives you 13.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 79% from the free-throw line is tough to overcome, especially when he’s accomplishing all of this in only 28 minutes a game.
There are nights where they look good despite his absence (defeating Maryland 84-64 back on Jan. 26), and other times where they clearly miss him (Sunday’s squeaker of a win over Boston College, 62-61), so this is still a work in progress. But does this situation perhaps play to Duke’s favor if Kelly isn’t able to return in time for the NCAA tournament? Missing Kelly has caused Duke to have to learn to play and win in a different way than they did before, so if Kelly is able to return and be effective then they’ll know what they have up front and will be dangerous come tourney time. But if Kelly isn’t available, they will be battle-tested and will have learned how to at least function without Kelly even if they can’t dominate with him out of the lineup.
Can the Blue Devils win the championship without Kelly? At this point it’s a hypothetical, but of course they can. Anything is possible. Will they win if they have to go without him? My guess is no, but that’s why they play the games.