In any sport, injuries can become a cruel and detrimental factor in a team's long-term success. When Duke senior forward Ryan Kelly injured his right foot earlier this month against the Clemson Tigers, a significant piece of the Blue Devils' title chances vanished in an instant.
For Kelly, this is the same foot injury that caused him to miss the final three games of his junior season, in which the Blue Devils looked like a completely inferior team while finishing 1-2, including an upset loss to the Lehigh Mountain Hawks in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
At the time of his injury this season, it was announced that the 6'10" power forward would miss up to four weeks of playing time. But is there more to this injury than what has been revealed? CBS Sports' in-studio analyst Seth Davis believes this may be quite possible, suggesting that Kelly could elect to have season ending surgery.
While the Duke coaching staff is taking a very careful approach in regards to the health of their versatile senior, who is currently averaging 13.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 1.7 blocks per game, they still have to put their best foot forward—no pun intended—and overcome the loss of arguably their most important player.
Despite the loss of Kelly and thanks to a pair of home losses from Louisville and Indiana in the last week, Duke is the No. 1 team in the country with a 16-1 overall record. However, the team that started the season with a 15-0 record including wins over Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State is just a mere afterthought at this point in time.
In their last two games without Kelly, they have looked extremely vulnerable. Against the North Carolina State Wolfpack, it was their worst defensive performance of the season in a 84-76 loss. They bounced back from their first loss of the season with a 73-57 victory over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, though the Blue Devils trailed for the most part of the first half.
From those two games, it was made apparent that this is a team searching for a new identity. One of the few bright spots to takeaway was the stellar play from freshman forward Amile Jefferson, who has filled the void at the four spot in Kelly's absence. Still, this is a team starting from scratch essentially.
The majority of the offense will continue to run through Naismith College Player of the Year candidate Mason Plumlee and senior guard Seth Curry, along with great minutes from sophomore point guard Quinn Cook. Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who snapped out of a dreadful shooting slump against Georgia Tech, has also provided great contribution in a number of marquee games.
As March rapidly approaches, Duke will be the most heavily watched team going into the NCAA Tournament. Looking to erase the memory of their upset loss one year ago, they have the right pieces to make a deep run this year in a season full of parity revolving around the top teams in the country. But how far can they go without Kelly if he isn't able to make a return?
It begins with how they perform during conference play—Duke is third in the ACC at 3-1. If they can get through meetings against Maryland (twice), Miami (twice), North Carolina (twice) and North Carolina State, they will most likely position themselves with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
From there, it's a crapshoot.
It's extremely hard to replace a player of Kelly's caliber, who can stretch a defense the way he does. Defensively, Kelly's length is used in a variety of ways and is very problematic for opposing teams and that is the key to Duke's success. According to the Ken Pomeroy rankings, Duke is fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency.
For the Blue Devils to get back to their second Final Four in the last four years, they will need consistent production from Jefferson and Sulaimon.
When speaking of Sulaimon specifically, he has the type of game where he can easily become the third leading scorer for this Duke team going forward, which is what Duke desperately needs to take some of the load off of Curry and Plumlee. He has scored in double figures in 11 of Duke's 17 games this year.
Jefferson has done a nice job since earning more playing time with Kelly out, but needs to control his style of play on the defensive end to have a considerable impact as he is averaging 4.5 fouls in the last two games. Though, it's hard not to appreciate the passion that Jefferson exhibits during games.
If the two freshmen can perform consistently on a nightly basis, Duke has a great chance of advancing through the tournament.
With Kelly, Duke is as good as anyone in the country. Without him, they are flawed. As the season progresses, head coach Mike Krzyzewski will find out how good this team can really become without him.
Only time will tell if they are good enough to keep the label as a serious title contender in 2013.