After suffering their first loss of the season in Raleigh on Saturday, the Blue Devils return to action on Thursday night as they host the Ramblin’ Wreck of Georgia Tech in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The loss to NC State dropped Duke to #3 in the national rankings, as if that matters, but the Devils accomplished some important things in defeat, not the least of which is they began learning how they’re going to play without Ryan Kelly, who remains out “indefinitely” with a foot injury. So let’s get that out of the way up front: Ryan Kelly isn’t coming back for the Georgia Tech game. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Ryan Kelly ain’t walking through that door anytime soon, fans. Gotta deal with it. On the bright side, Seth Curry, who turned an ankle late in the NC State game, should be ready to go on Thursday night. Which means he’s improved from having zero legs to stand on at the end of the afternoon on Saturday to the one he’s been playing on all season.
It’s been a good time to have a five day break between outings, and with no game this weekend, the Blue Devils will have their last extended break after the Georgia Tech affair before traveling to Miami next Wednesday night. Not only did the five days give Curry a chance to rest and treat his ankle, but it provided the staff a chance to really break down the NC State game and alter the approach as necessary going forward without Kelly. Some have speculated that a lineup change may be coming, giving the still-slumping Rasheed Sulaimon a chance to watch some more from the bench and to recharge his batteries while either Tyler Thornton or Amile Jefferson starts. I doubt that happens. Coach K and the staff are already dealing with filling the many gaps left by Kelly’s absence. I don’t think they’re going to want to further alter the lineup and create even more uncertainty and more shifting roles right now.
With the team seeking to forge a new identity of sorts without Kelly, it’s also a good time for a squad like Georgia Tech to come to town because, frankly, they’re not very good. They’re 10-5 overall under second year coach Brian Gregory, and 0-3 in the ACC. Dead last in the league already. The Yellow Jackets were a pitiful 11-20, 4-12 in the ACC last year, so suffice it to say the Gregory era is not exactly off to a rousing start. But I’ll always like him for at least two reasons. One, his Dayton team beat North Carolina in the finals of the NIT in 2010, thereby denying the Tar Heels even the modest levels of respect that such a title might have involved and providing a fitting cap to their humiliating season, and two, he’s not Paul Hewitt.
But really, take a look at what this team has done. Here are their ten wins: Tulane, Presbyterian, Rice, Saint Mary’s, Georgia, UNC-Wilmington, Alabama State, The Citadel, Fordham, and Chattanooga. The highest rated of that bunch in this week’s KenPom is St. Mary’s at 54. Next is Tulane at 103. The five losses have come at the hands of California, Illinois, and then the three ACC losses, 13 pointers at home to Miami and at NC State, and then in overtime on Saturday at home against Virginia Tech after having blown an eleven point second half lead by not making a field goal in the last seven minutes of regulation. They’re ranked #92 in KenPom this week.
Their top two scorers are freshmen, those being swingman Marcus Georges-Hunt and highly touted forward Robert Carter at 10.1. Georges-Hunt is fourth among freshman scorers in the ACC. The burly Carter, along with 6’11” center Daniel Miller, lead in rebounds at 6.5 ppg, and Miller is the leading shotblocker in the ACC, swatting 2.5 per game. Senior Mfon Udofia is back at the point guard spot. He’s quick and has a decent handle, but he doesn’t scare anybody. His shot selection has improved, though, and so have his shooting percentages. His assists are up and his turnovers are down over his first three years. Junior Brandon Reed also starts at guard.
The Jackets have two interesting names off the bench. Well, one name, two guys. Stacey Poole Jr. transferred from Kentucky, and became eligible in December, and is working himself into the rotation. His younger brother Solomon is a freshman on the team as well, but he doesn’t play much yet. He was a highly sought-after recruit last year, and was originally class of 2013, but he graduated high school early and enrolled at Tech in December, so he’s been able to get an early start on his college career. Junior forward Kammeon Holsey is the sixth man, and freshman guard Chris Bolden is also in the rotation, as is junior Jason Morris, but the latter is out with plantar fasciitis. The Pooles are the only kids on the roster not from the state of Georgia. They’re from Jacksonville, FL. That’s just about Georgia. Coach Gregory, you gotta expand the recruiting horizons beyond your home state if you want to be competitive.
Overall, the Yellow Jackets shoot poorly — 42% as a team — and can’t score, averaging only 65 ppg against that mediocre schedule. Udofia shoots 37% from the three point line and everyone else is lousy from there, with the exception of Morris off the bench, whose percentage is fine but he only gets enough minutes to make one per game. And he won’t be making any on Thursday night for, as mentioned above, he’s out with a foot injury. As a team, Georgia Tech shoots 30% from the arc and 65% from the free throw line. No Jacket player has scored 20 points in a game this year, and none ranks in the top 25 scorers in the ACC.
Georgia Tech’s numbers look better defensively. They’re 17th in the nation in scoring defense and 13th in FG% defense. They stand third in the ACC in both categories.
Duke is 50-18 against Georgia Tech in the Krzyzewski era, including winning 28 of the last 31. The Blue Devils have won the last four in the series, including last season’s 81-74 decision in Atlanta, and have won five in a row over the Jackets at Cameron. In last season’s game, Glen Rice Jr. shot out of his mind, burning Duke for 28 points, and Udofia also hit the Devils with 19. Duke was led by, ahem, Ryan Kelly with 21 points in 27 minutes off the bench, including 14 of 14 from the line.
It would not surprise me if this one turned into a laugher. Georgia Tech just doesn’t have the horses to hang with Duke, even without Kelly. The two frosh are nice players, but come on. Udofia has improved, but he’s a middle of the pack point guard in the league, one who I don’t believe is in Quinn Cook’s class. Even if the Jackets handle the ball well, which they usually do, and don’t turn it over against Duke’s pressure, they can’t shoot it, so they don’t make you pay. I suppose they’ll try to see if Carter can use his bulk to get Mason Plumlee into foul trouble, but this isn’t 2010 or 2011. Mason is a much smarter defensive player than he was back then, and he’s not going to let a freshman do that to him. Plus, Mason won’t even be guarding Carter primarily. Mason will be on Miller, who is less of a scorer, and Josh Hairston and maybe Amile Jefferson (who will be giving up a lot of bulk) will probably be on Carter.
One thing I’m going to be looking for is how Duke does in spacing the floor without Kelly, and how well Cook and to a lesser extent Curry and Sulaimon can get the ball into teammates’ hands in scoring position. One aspect of that of course is feeding Mason Plumlee, which probably didn’t happen enough in Raleigh on Saturday. But Kelly really does stretch the defense and provides a nice big target for catch and shoots. Hairston and Jefferson don’t do that. Without Kelly on the perimeter, Duke will have one less shooter out there, one less guy to whom to swing the ball when the defense is moving, and the defense will have one more guy in easier help position on Plumlee. If Georgia Tech does pack it in more, perhaps this will be a chance for Alex Murphy to get some meaningful burn, to open things back up from the outside. Of course it would be nice to see Rasheed Sulaimon get his mojo back too. This seems like a good opportunity. We’re at home, against a bottom feeder team, and we’re rested. The team needs Rasheed to push the ball, to finish at the hole, and to be a threat to make a jumpshot. His defense will be there, but I’d like to see the team make a concerted effort to get him something easy early in the game, to get him going, help with his confidence, and hopefully he can take it from there. Big picture: get the win, no further injuries, and then we’ll have almost another full week to tinker and adjust our approach as we get ready for Miami, which will be one of the toughest, if not the toughest game remaining on the schedule.