Duke's case for a No. 1 seed in next week's NCAA tournament seems to be rather solid, but a few victories in the ACC tournament could make a spot on the top line all but a given.
When the conference has held its annual March gathering in Greensboro, the No. 2 Blue Devils rarely do anything but win.
The Blue Devils (27-4, 14-4) reeled off 15 straight wins to open the season before Kelly suffered a foot injury Jan. 8, then lost four of seven on the road during the nearly two months he missed.
Duke couldn't catch Miami for the ACC regular-season title once Kelly returned, but it certainly looked like a complete team that has a great case for a No. 1 seed next week. Kelly scored 36 points in a comeback win over the Hurricanes on March 2, had 18 and nine boards in a rout of Virginia Tech three days later and chipped in with eight points Saturday while Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry combined for 43 in an easy win at North Carolina.
"You want to be playing at your best going into the tournament and you can't afford a loss at this point in the season where you're questioning your lineups and what your identity is,'' Plumlee said. "It was the kind of win we needed going into tournament time.''
Plumlee was the Blue Devils' lone representative on the all-ACC first team, but as long as Kelly's been in the lineup, coach Mike Krzyzewski's team hasn't lost. Duke is 18-0, winning by an average of 16.7 points, when Kelly has played and 9-4 while outscoring opponents by 6.9 points per game without him.
"We're getting the feel back, but he was out two months, so it's not going to just happen overnight,'' point guard Quinn Cook said. "... We're getting back to where we were before he got hurt. We still got a long ways to go but we're just taking baby steps to where we need to be.''
Cook and the Blue Devils won't want to change anything about their approach to postseason games in Greensboro. Duke has won the last three ACC tournaments played at the Coliseum and reached the title game in the last six there.
Additionally, it's won 11 straight quarterfinal contests when receiving a first-round bye, though on Thursday it'll face an opponent that knows it can play with the Blue Devils. Maryland (21-11) got 19 points and nine rebounds from Alex Len and shot 60.0 percent in an 83-81 win over Duke on Feb. 16, three weeks after getting routed 84-64 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Terrapins, who likely need to at least get to the ACC title game to have a shot at an NCAA at-large berth, shook off a rocky first half Thursday to set up this meeting. Dez Wells scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half as Maryland outscored Wake Forest 45-27 after the break in a 75-62 win.
Wells, however, knows the Terps are getting a much different Duke team than they last saw.
"Ryan changes the dynamic of the team," said Wells, who has averaged 18.5 points in four games this month. "We're going to be ready for him and the rest of the players. Coach K is a great coach but I believe in my defense and my team and my coaches."
To beat Duke again, Maryland will likely need to continue controlling the glass. The Terps had an 83-54 rebounding edge in the two meetings, with Len dominating Plumlee (four points, three boards) in Maryland's win.
That set off a raucous celebration in College Park, but Krzyzewski seemed to take a shot at the Terps - who after next season will depart for the Big Ten, thus likely ending this rivalry - in the aftermath.
"I have a great deal of respect for Maryland," Krzyzewski said. "If it was such a rivalry they'd still be in the ACC. Obviously they don't think it's that important or else they wouldn't be in the Big Ten."