Just about anything written about Duke in the past two months had to be qualified with, "But they're playing without Ryan Kelly." It was an excuse, but a good one. Fortunately, for those in Durham, we can move to the magic words: "Since Kelly returned …"
Duke's results offer a clear division: Without Kelly, the Blue Devils lost to Lehigh in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history. Eight months later, Kelly returned for his senior season, and they opened 15-0 and piled up nonconference wins against Louisville, Ohio State, Minnesota, VCU, Kentucky and Temple for the best resume in America. After Kelly got hurt again, they immediately lost two of three -- at N.C. State and a blowout loss at Miami -- and later lost trips to Maryland and, on Thursday, Virginia. In a national landscape filled with flawed teams, Duke was still a top-10 team and a contender, ranked No. 3 in last week's polls, but clearly a big part of its recipe for success was missing.
The 6-foot-11 Kelly was unexpectedly announced as a starter Saturday after just returning to practice a few days earlier, and he took over the much-anticipated revenge game against No. 5 Miami from the start. Despite his near two-month absence, he played 32 minutes. He made seven of nine three-pointers. He finished with a career-high 36 points, torching Miami as a spot shooter and leading the Blue Devils with seven rebounds for good measure.
This isn't to say Duke is invincible with him completing its starting five. Miami proved its worth by shaking off Kelly's 36 points and still hoisting two potential game-tying shots on its final possession. If anything, the 79-76 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium reassured us all that Miami belongs in discussions for at least a No. 2 seed.
But it's just the beginning for Duke. It was Kelly's first game since Jan. 8. He isn't even meant to be the go-to scorer, and he won't be the rest of the way. In 15 previous games, he was the sole lead scorer only once. Nobody was ready for what happened Saturday.
Now, Duke's upcoming opponents -- Virginia Tech and North Carolina before the ACC tournament -- must somehow account for Kelly in addition to All-American center Mason Plumlee, in addition to guards Seth Curry, Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, who all average double figures. Whereas before defenses could double-team Plumlee, now Kelly's versatility and ability to score from anywhere as a near-seven-footer in the post and as a potent spot shooter on the outside force opponents to spread out. That frees Plumlee to work in the post and frees the guards to create. There may not be a more important word in basketball than "spacing," and Kelly provides that almost as well as anyone in college basketball.
Duke's good but beatable without him. With him, nobody has beaten them. And he's making a case to be known as one of the most important players in the country, joining a big group of others who decided to do the same over the weekend:
- If there's such thing as a "Wooden Award moment," Trey Burke had his in the final 30 seconds at Crisler Arena on Sunday, bouncing back with 21 points against Michigan State a few days after turning the ball over six times in a horrid loss to Penn State. The Wolverines blew a late 10-point lead, and the Spartans had the ball with a tie game and the clock under 35 seconds. Keith Appling -- who has struggled manning the point for Michigan State the last few weeks -- crossed midcourt and got complacent looking to Tom Izzo for instructions before Burke picked his pocket and took off for an uncontested go-ahead dunk. And Burke wasn't done, as he also got a game-ending steal thanks to some aggressive defense with Michigan holding a one-point lead in the final seconds.
- Otto Porter just keeps carrying Georgetown toward a No. 1 seed. The last four words weren't uttered by anyone until the last week or so. That's what happens when you lose to Pitt by 28, then lose to South Florida 11 days later. But … after that slump the Hoyas beat Notre Dame, beat Louisville, beat Marquette and suddenly had an eight-game winning streak heading into last Saturday's showdown at Syracuse. Porter dominated, scoring 33 of Georgetown's 57 points in an ugly defense-oriented win. Then Porter shook off a slow first half against at UConn, scoring 21 points after halftime, including the game-winner in double overtime with 9.5 seconds left. And, even when the Hoyas had what was supposed to be a breather against Rutgers on Saturday, Porter still carried the load, scoring 28 of the team's 64 points (including making 15 of 18 free throws). The quantum leap Georgetown has made has been spectacular, and Porter has single-handedly made everyone forget about its loss to South Florida.
- Creighton fell flat during Missouri Valley season, unexpectedly losing five conference games, but it's hard to blame McDermott for any of the team's shortcomings, even if he had a few lulls in production. He's the only player on the Bluejays averaging double figures, and with Creighton suddenly falling into bubble-territory, he's been at his best -- and the team seems to finally be a lock for the field of 68. After last week's loss to St. Mary's, McDermott responded by putting up 32 points and 11 rebounds against Bradley and shooting an absurd 15 of 18 from the field to score 41 points in Creighton's regular-season finale against MVC nemesis Wichita State on Saturday to wrap up the league title. If the Bluejays make it to the second week of the tournament, we all know who to thank.
- A perfect example of how Kelly Olynyk's season has gone for Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference: He needed to play only 21 minutes in the Bulldogs' 81-52 win over Portland on Saturday. In what was essentially one half of basketball, he made seven of eight field goals, scored 15 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had four assists. It's too easy. Maybe by the Sweet 16 he'll have to play a full game.
- Rodney McGruder hasn't necessarily been flashy, but he's the best player on an under-appreciated Kansas State team that's lost only to Michigan, Gonzaga, Kansas (twice) and Iowa State. Saturday, he showed why he's the team's centerpiece. After the Wildcats got the ball back with one second left at Baylor thanks to a botched in-bounds play, McGruder caught and shot the game-winning three-pointer as time expired. K-State is now tied atop the Big 12 with Kansas.
- After a rough patch, Kansas guard and possible No. 1 draft pick Ben McLemore woke up and went off against West Virginia, making 12 of 15 field goals (7 of 9 three-pointers) to equal Ryan Kelly with 36 points as the Jayhawks make a bid for a No. 1 seed despite their loss to TCU. The Jayhawks may go as far as McLemore can take them.
And then, of course, we need to mention Indiana's Victor Oladipo, who may be the Wooden Award favorite and has made his case all season, with Porter, Burke and Olynyk all on his heels.
But, despite the efforts of all of the above, the 2013 college basketball season may now hinge on Ryan Kelly, who transcended all of the above players and proved that, if nothing else, he's the wild card of the season.
Without him, Duke's a good bet for another upset loss, not in the first round, but certainly before the Final Four in Atlanta. With him, the only team that's as good a bet for the national championship, the only team that can match the Blue Devils' starting five, is Indiana.
Yes, it's a mistake to put too much stock into one game, one that Kelly will most likely never match again individually. If this season has taught us anything, it's that making too much out of a great win or a terrible loss is foolish.
But it's not just one game of evidence for Kelly and Duke. Saturday was a reminder that nobody was better than Duke before Kelly got hurt, and it's likely that nobody will be better now that he's back.