With first place in the ACC on the line in Wednesday night’s Duke vs. Miami showdown, the top-ranked Blue Devils barely even showed up. Duke failed in all phases of its game in an epic 90-63 Hurricanes blowout whose aftershocks will extend well beyond the final buzzer.
Mike Krzyzewski’s team was, once again, playing without injured forward Ryan Kelly, but that excuse is starting to wear thin.
Before Wednesday, the question seemed to be "Is Duke still a viable national title contender in Kelly’s absence?" After the beating they took from the Hurricanes, the new question becomes, "Just how bad are the Blue Devils with Kelly stuck on the sidelines?"
In Duke’s defense, its two losses since Kelly reinjured his foot have both come on the road against very good teams (NC State and Miami). That they lost at all is not such a bad sign, but the fact that the Blue Devils didn’t even keep either game very close is a much worse one.
Duke’s senior leadership, highlighted by Wooden Award candidates Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry, is supposed to keep them from falling apart in tough road games. Instead, those two stars shot a combined 5-of-24 against Miami as their team got blown out before the halftime buzzer even sounded.
It’s not often that a Duke team gives anyone occasion to question its heart, but Wednesday’s disastrous showing makes that question unavoidable. It’s also far from the only problem that’s emerged for these Blue Devils.
On offense, Duke has relied all season on a game plan of hoisting three-pointers at every opportunity and letting Plumlee go one-on-one inside. Plumlee, however, has struggled to get his points in the last two games, when he’s faced centers (6’11”, 257-lb Daniel Miller and 6’10”, 250-lb Julian Gamble) who can match him physically.
Without Plumlee to pull defenses into the lane—and without Kelly as an additional option on the wing—Duke’s three-point gunners aren’t getting the easy looks they’re used to.
The ACC has plenty of tough defenses besides Miami's. Wednesday’s 4-of-23 accuracy from beyond the arc won’t be Duke’s last miserable shooting night this season.
Similarly, defending the rim has been a recurring problem for the Blue Devils without Kelly’s shot-blocking presence. Miami shot 56.9 percent from the field, much of it on drives in the paint that Plumlee couldn’t stop alone.
All of these problems would be alleviated if the 6’11” Kelly returned. Unfortunately for Duke, there isn’t even a timetable for when he's expected back.
Going forward with the players they have available, the Blue Devils are nothing more than a respectable ACC team. They’ll finish in the top three or four in the league, but they’re not going to intimidate anybody who’s good enough to contend.
By Duke standards, that’s a catastrophic drop-off for what was supposed to be a national title favorite. Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t have the personnel flexibility to shake things up too much, but if he has a panic button, he’s justified in pushing it after the way his team has played over the past 11 days.