Duke faces decisions after loss to Wolfpack

Duke suffered its first loss of the season Saturday after N.C. State exposed some underlying problems.

So where does Duke go from here?

The top-ranked team in the land a week ago, the Blue Devils now find themselves looking up in the ACC standings and without one of their best players, Ryan Kelly, for the foreseeable future. 

And while the Devils gave a warrior-like effort in Saturday’s 84-76 loss at N.C. State, the absence of Kelly was obvious, especially late in the game when Duke needed to run fluid offensive sets. 

But not having Kelly also showed itself in other areas, in particular transition defense, and it’s quite obvious that by moving forward with Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson replacing Kelly’s minutes and playing his forward spot, Duke (15-1, 2-1 ACC) must change its approach. 

Hairston and Jefferson combined to post 18 points and nine rebounds Saturday, but the manner they got those numbers was quite different than how the 6-foot-10 Kelly (13.4 points, 5.4 rebounds per game) would have achieved such numbers. 

“Amile and Josh played well,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Saturday’s game. “They just don’t know the defense and execution of the offense as well as Ryan. We’re still not a great team with Ryan. We’re a really good team, but we’re better than our parts when we have them all together.”

Translation: Hairston, a 6-foot-7 junior, hasn’t been trusted with much playing time, and Jefferson, a 6-foot-8 freshman, hasn’t been deemed ready yet, especially on the defensive end, and has been forced into the rotation.

Neither player shares any similarities with Kelly, who can stretch defenses with his perimeter shooting and also make them honest because he can take the ball to the rim. He’s a terrific defensive player who communicates on the floor more than his teammates. And his savvy nature is missed as well.

Consider that Kentucky, Louisville, Minnesota and Ohio State combined to score just 26 fast-break points against the Blue Devils, but the Wolfpack had 22.

“First of all, it’s new guys,” Krzyzewski said when asked about N.C. State’s success in the open court. “Ryan Kelly is one of the best defensive players in the country in position defense. He’s also that guy who covers the floor and corrals guys. No one has done that against us this year.”

Duke might be able to play more physically, especially with Hairston on the floor. He’s not at all comfortable away from the basket, and to best utilize his skills, Duke may go back to high ball screens with him rolling toward the basket.

Senior Mason Plumlee has had an outstanding season, and if Hairston spends too much time near the basket, he could cloud Plumlee’s space, further slowing down an offense that has one less major perimeter threat. There’s no easy remedy here.

Another option for Duke is for Krzyzewski to let loose with redshirt freshman Alex Murphy, whose brother, Erik Murphy, starts for Florida. Murphy was quite heralded going to Duke, and Krzyzewski gave every indication in October that the 6-foot-8 wing in the form of Kyle Singler – he even wears No. 12 – would be a major part of this team, but he hasn’t been a factor at all.

Murphy has played a few minutes here and there, and usually appeared to have little confidence until a decent couple of minutes against Clemson last week. But with Kelly out and Duke having major needs, Murphy sat on the bench for the first 37 minutes of Saturday’s game, only getting on the floor because three Blue Devils fouled out and Seth Curry was injured. 

Unless Krzyzewski is going to reconstruct his team, which he’s done at midseason before, notably in February of 2010, which later paid off with a national championship, Duke could be in for a few more speed bumps than were originally expected.

But the Hall of Fame coach knows no one will pity the Blue Devils’ situation, which may also include the loss of Curry, the senior guard and second-leading scorer (16.4 points per game) who left Saturday’s game late after injuring his left leg slipping on a wet spot on the court. 

“I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy, it’s just the way it is,” he said. “We’ll go and run our race and see where that ends and see what the heck happens.”

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