Duke's Plumlee sounds confident about Kelly's return

Ryan Kelly's long absence has hurt Duke now -- but could help the team in the long run. (US Presswire)

It was a key word that Mason Plumlee uttered when describing Duke teammate Ryan Kelly's situation.   

"When we get him back, we'll be a better team because of it," Plumlee told me on Tuesday afternoon. 

Plumlee, of course, was referring to the status of his senior teammate and the foot injury that has sidelined him for nearly a month. The Blue Devils dropped two of their first three games without Kelly in the lineup, including a 27-point shellacking down in Miami. 

"That was more than just a regular-season loss," Plumlee said. "We got embarrassed." 

Duke has responded and reeled off three consecutive wins: a home victory over Maryland and road wins against Wake Forest and Florida State. 

"The Maryland game was the first one that we hit our stride without Ryan," Plumlee said on SiriusXM's Inside College Basketball. "Since then, we've been playing well. It took us a little bit, but I think now we're in a good place." 

But the key question is whether Kelly returns -- and if so, when will he be back on the court?  Multiple sources told CBSSports.com that there is optimism within the program that he'll get back prior to the end of this month, maybe even as soon as the middle of February. 

"We've seen him without his air-sock cast on and doing a little more rehab," Plumlee said. "But we don't know when we're going to have him back. I would hope we'd have him back by the end of the ACC season, but with these kind of injuries, you never really know." 

There's no denying this is a different team without Kelly, and not just on the offensive end of the court, where he's been Duke's most efficient long-range shooter this season. Kelly is also a cerebral positional defender who rarely makes mistakes and also has length to bother shooters. 

The benefit, if there is one, from Kelly's injury is that it has allowed freshman Amile Jefferson to get force-fed key minutes -- and it's also given redshirt frosh Alex Murphy an opportunity to get on the court. The Blue Devils could use a long and athletic forward, especially on the defensive end, if this team is able to continue playing in April. 

But what Coach K could use more than anything else right now is a healthy Kelly. 

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