Analysis: Duke's chances for NCAA run slim without Kelly - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va

Analysis: Duke's chances for NCAA run slim without Kelly

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DURHAM, N.C. -

Mike Krzyzewski turned 66 on Wednesday night, a reminder that his days at Duke are measured in years, not decades. Dean Smith, after all, walked away from North Carolina at the same age.

So these are days to be treasured at Duke. Krzyzewski already has four NCAA titles and may win another, but his reign won't last forever. Those high school seniors who got their acceptances to Duke may finish their college years with a different man on the bench at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

So there was an important lesson buried inside the chaos of Cameron Wednesday night, and it was this – Duke is one team with Ryan Kelly in the lineup, and another with him on the bench. Duke is too thin up front, and too dependent on three-pointers, to make a real run for the NCAA title with Kelly out of the fold.

When Kelly, who played at Ravenscroft in Raleigh, will return from a right foot injury is uncertain. It was telling that Krzyzewski, when asked about the impact of the loss of Kelly Wednesday night, opened his response by saying "if" Kelly is back.

He hasn't played since Jan. 8 against Clemson and could be weeks away. Duke fans don't have to think back long to remember the most famous toe in Devils history, as Kyrie Irving's injury lingered.

Duke wasn't the same team when Irving returned in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. The Devils looked tentative on the floor and lost to Arizona in NCAA play too early for the talent they had.

In some situations, injuries have benefited Duke. In 1992, Bobby Hurley suffered a foot injury and Grant Hill moved to point guard. After Hurley returned, the confident Hill gained in handling the ball was vital to success. Hill, for example, played with tremendous poise in the epic Final Eight victory over Kentucky that led to the national title.

In 2001, Carlos Boozer suffered an injury that looked devastating to Duke's NCAA chances. But Krzyzewski and his staff re-invented the team with Boozer out. Once Boozer returned, Duke was already rocketing toward the NCAA title.

This year? Hard to say.  Even Krzyzewski was realistic about where this team stands despite its No. 2 ranking.

"We've been able not to let our ship sink," Krzyzewski said. "So some of this since Ryan has been out is survival."

This situation, Krzyzewski said, is different than previous ones when Duke faced an injury because the Devils don't have the depth of talent of past teams.

"When Boozer went out, you still had Williams, Battier, Dunleavy, Duhon. We don't have that," Krzyzewski said.

"He [Kelly] is just a key guy. So who we are goes down significantly – significantly."

That was evident Wednesday. Give Carolina credit for a gritty performance, and the wisdom to play a smaller, quicker lineup that matched up with Duke.

But the absence of Kelly was the reason Carolina could go that route. It's not just Kelly's scoring and rebounding that Duke misses, but the smaller contributions, like his willingness to set screens, that make a difference on the floor.

And when he'll be back is uncertain.

"We think he'll be back,but we're not completely sure," Krzyzewski said. "There's no timeframe."

There's no time frame for how long Krzyzewski will coach at Duke, either.  Three years? Four years? Who knows?

This much is clear – without Ryan Kelly, Duke's chance of snatching its fifth national title this season is remote.

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