DURHAM, N.C. -- Ryan Kelly had become the savior, each Duke setback making the 6-foot-11 senior more valuable, almost irreplaceable around these parts. When he finally returned, whenever it was, the expectations would be unfathomable, too lofty for the unathletic, skilled forward to achieve.
Over the last two months while sitting out with a foot injury, Kelly had gone from one of the nation's most underrated players to the most valuable player in the country. He had turned into the college version of Dirk Nowitzki with each passing game.
Kelly didn't just live up to the hype in his much-anticipated return. He blew it away.
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The face-up power forward, who practiced for a grand total of 20 minutes before his return, wound up with a career-high 36 points in a 79-76 victory over fifth-ranked Miami on Saturday night. It was one of the most sensational performances, especially given the circumstances, of the season and maybe the last decade. Kelly literally carried the Blue Devils in the first half, scoring 20 points in 15 minutes and drilling 5-of-7 shots from beyond the arc.
"We were all privileged to see one of the performances of the ages by Ryan Kelly," Duke coach Mike Krzyewski said. "And me saying spectacular or whatever doesn't even do his performance justice."
"It was amazing," Seth Curry added. "Sometimes you forget what he brings."
Kelly's presence makes the Blue Devils, who went 9-4 and became just another team without him, into Final Four and national title contenders. No, it makes Duke the favorites to cut down the nets in Atlanta come April.
Big man Mason Plumlee will no longer see constant double-teams -- as has been the case since Kelly went out of the lineup on Jan. 8. Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon will have more room to drive the ball to the basket, and Curry will get easier looks. This finally looks like the team I fell in love watching back in November down in the Bahamas, the team that ran off 15 victories without a single setback with Kelly in the lineup.
Miami prepared for Kelly to play, but as Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga said after the loss, "obviously not for that Ryan Kelly."
Kelly averaged 13.4 points per game prior to the injury, so it's obviously unrealistic to expect him to go for 30-plus. However, he completely changes the complexion of the entire team. In the first half, everyone in blue and white not named Kelly struggled -- but the Blue Devils were still in the game due to his shooting clinic. He gives this team a significant margin of error, one it didn't have over the past 13 games, and not just due to his shooting. He also moves the ball on the offensive end, helps Plumlee on the glass, plays solid positional defense and gives the team length on that end of the floor.
"We're going to get back to how we were playing," Plumlee said. "Having him back is uplifting."
No one was certain that Kelly would be back, though. Sure, he said all the right things. I chatted with him on Jan. 26 prior to the Maryland game when he was on crutches with a boot protecting his right foot. I returned for the Feb. 13 game against rival North Carolina and he was still gimping around on the crutches with the boot in tow. He said the target date was the Miami game, but he honestly had no idea at that point when or if he'd even be able to return.
"He kept saying he wanted to come back, but no one really knew if he'd be able to," Plumlee added.
"I wasn't really sure," Kelly admitted.
Krzyzewski was just hoping that Kelly would give his team a lift on Saturday, and also this would be the start of a process in which the veteran would shake some of the rust off prior to the ACC, and more importantly, the NCAA tournament. This is a Blue Devils group that had fallen back into a fairly considerable pack, along with about 10 other teams, that could challenge for the national championship. Now Kelly won't just get to play on Senior Night Tuesday against Virginia Tech, but he'll go into it with confidence.
"I had butterflies tonight," he admitted. "That's a good thing."
It meant that Kelly was a participant and not a spectator. This had been brutal for Kelly in his final season in Durham, one in which he was averaging career-highs in scoring, rebounding and also making 52 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. The former McDonald's All-American wasn't able to play in last year's NCAA tournament loss to Lehigh due to an injury to the same foot, and he was fearful that this time it would end his career. It was also difficult to watch Plumlee get swarmed in the paint, Cook struggle to find driving lanes, or Curry to have difficulty finding space when coming off screens. Duke has two regular-season contests left, at home against Virginia Tech and at North Carolina, and the Blue Devils trail Miami by two games. It's a longshot to win the ACC regular-season crown, but it was far more imperative that this team get back whole.
Kelly's return did just that.
Duke's overall resume is as impressive as any in the nation, but the pollsters -- and just about everyone else -- had a difficult time evaluating this team. They wanted to wait to see if Kelly was back before those early season victories against Louisville, VCU, Ohio State and Minnesota carried any significant weight.
Kelly is back. So is Duke -- as the No. 1 team in America.