Last week Ryan Kelly sat out the second half of Duke's comfortable 68-40 win at home after Clemson, after injuring his right foot. Four days later the No. 1-ranked and undefeated Blue Devils posted their worst defensive showing of the entire season, allowing NC State to score 1.17 points per possession in Duke's 84-76 loss in Raleigh.
Cause and effect? Not entirely, of course, but to a certain extent one thing did help the other along. Kelly's absence didn't single-handedly trigger the Blue Devils' first loss, but it sure didn't help. More importantly, there's good reason for Mike Krzyzewski to be worried as long as the 6-11 senior is sidelined by his injury.
Kelly has long labored under a misapprehension common to all tall players who can make 3s, namely, that making 3s must be all they can do. (Although allowance is sometimes made that such a player is also "a good passer.") In Kelly's case, however, that misapprehension is clearly mistaken. The senior's no threat to Jeff Withey statistically in terms of shot blocking, however he is the best player in that department on a team that started ACC play limiting opponents to 38 percent shooting inside the arc. Conversely the Wolfpack were able to hit better than half their twos playing against the no-Kelly version of Duke.
In Kelly's absence, the minutes given to players like 6-7 Josh Hairston are likely to increase. Note for example that Hairston started in Kelly's place in Raleigh, logging 25 minutes and scoring a season-high eight points to go along with five rebounds.
Hairston's a fine player, but the advantage that Kelly gave his team relative to opponents is relatively simple to describe. In a lineup that already has 6-10 national Player of the Year candidate Mason Plumlee, the 6-11 Kelly was free to guard the opposing team's best scorer at the 4 or even the 3 positions. And scorers at those positions aren't necessarily accustomed to being guarded by 6-11 players, at least not ones who also have the ability to stick with them.
This alignment of defensive talent was working beautifully for Duke through their first 15 games. Where last season the Blue Devils were suspect on D, this season's team had made a dramatic improvement on that side of the ball. In fact, with Kelly in the lineup, this defense deserved mention in the same breath as Louisville and Syracuse. They were that good.
Now that I've spoken of Kelly as though he were Anthony Davis, Jr. on defense, allow me to make the more obvious point: Kelly is an important part of the Duke offense as well. A 52 percent three-point shooter on the season (and a 79 percent shooter at the line), Kelly was Duke's third-leading scorer at the time of his injury. He was an effective source of offense for Coach K, not only by virtue of his perimeter accuracy but also because he committed just 12 turnovers even though he was on the floor for 739 offensive possessions.
No player replacing Kelly will carry as large a load on offense, meaning players like Plumlee, Seth Curry, and Rasheed Sulaimon will see their possession usage increase. Duke's still a very good team without Kelly, of course, but they're measurably better with him in the lineup. Blue Devil fans should be hoping for the senior's speedy return. I promise you Krzyzewski is.
What's the matter with Kentucky?
On paper John Calipari's young team has been better than most observers think all season long, but unfortunately the games aren't played on paper. Instead they're contested on the court, and the hardwood at Rupp Arena in Lexington is where the Wildcats were defeated by a hitherto undistinguished Texas A&M team, 83-71. In a game that was tied with a little more than four minutes remaining, UK was outscored 20-8 down the stretch.
Give a lot of the credit here to A&M's 6-5 senior, Elston Turner, who scored 40 points on 14-of-19 shooting in a venue that isn't exactly known for allowing opposing players to record big games. Turner scored 25 points in the first half alone, and proved to be too much for the young Wildcats in general (and Alex Poythress in particular) to handle. It was a special performance.
The question is, where does Kentucky go from here? The prior example of teams that have played at the level UK has recorded to this point in the season says that Calipari's team will be just fine, even with a hiccup at home. Don't count on this group to win any free throw shooting contests, mind you, but game in and game out this is still a very good team, one that defends the interior and makes 54 percent of their own twos. Outperforming your opponents in the paint is usually a really good predictor of success, and that metric suggests the Wildcats should be just fine.
But there's another possibility in play here, the one where prior examples don't matter. This is an unusually young team (even by Calipari's standards) trying to follow in the footsteps of not only a national champion but arguably the best college basketball team of recent years. If these talented players start to play worried instead of loose, and tentative instead of assertive, frankly, all bets are off. I will be watching very closely to see how UK performs in upcoming road games at Auburn and Alabama. Those are two games a team of Kentucky's caliber "should" win -- just like Calipari's team "should" have won at home against the Aggies.
Missouri needs Bowers
At first glance there's nothing at all similar about the situations faced by Missouri and Kentucky. The Tigers are 12-3 and ranked in the top 10 in the nation, while the Wildcats are 10-5 and unranked.
But a closer look reveals that, while you'd much rather be in Frank Haith's shoes than in Calipari's at the moment, Mizzou has its own grounds for worrying. Pollsters and most college basketball observers have been voting and talking as if the Tigers have simply picked up where they left off last season, when Haith's team had what was arguably the nation's best (not to mention most entertaining) offense.
That assumption has taken a hit, however, in the wake of Missouri's 64-49 loss at Mississippi, a performance that marked the Tigers' worst effort on offense in the Haith era. The trip to Oxford marked Mizzou's first game without 6-8 senior Laurence Bowers, who is out for what is expected to be a short time with an MCL sprain.
The worry here is not that this team will continue to score just 0.73 points per possession as they did against the Rebels. The larger danger for Missouri is that, even with Bowers in the lineup, this team wasn't quite as good as their ranking would indicate. Phil Pressey has quite rightly earned universal praise for his skills as a point guard, but in terms of perimeter scoring he could use some help, the kind that was supplied in abundance last season by Marcus Denmon, Kim English, and Michael Dixon. All those players are gone, and in their absence Pressey is not only recording a lot of assists but also missing a lot of shots.
Bowers' return will be a huge lift for this team, and as long as Alex Oriakhi is pulling down offensive boards and blocking shots, Missouri will be a factor in the SEC race. But don't mistake the current Missouri team for what we saw last season in Columbia. In particular losing Dixon, who "transferred" when he was about to be dismissed from the team in November, may turn out to be a bigger deal than many people realized at the time.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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