Ryan Kelly is Duke's defensive quarterback against Louisville

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Duke staff watched the video of the Blue Devils' Sweet 16 win over Michigan State in the early hours of Saturday morning, associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski wanted to hear one thing.


Apparently, senior forward Ryan Kelly is a screaming rainbow for Duke, which uses different color commands to identify defensive calls. Like a quarterback at the line, Kelly is making calls for how to play a ball screen or when to double in the post.

He also screams out phrases such as “force him to me” on penetration, “I’ve got your help middle” and “force him baseline.”

Wojciechowski heard just the right pitch when watching the replay.

“Ryan is our unifier,” Wojciechowski said.

If Duke knocks off top-seeded Louisville in Sunday’s Elite Eight, Kelly will be a catalyst without needing to make a shot, which is entirely possible.

Much has been made of Kelly’s triumphant, 39-point return against Miami after missing nearly two months with a foot injury. In his last five games, however, Kelly is shooting 30.7 percent (12-of-39), including 0-of-11 from 3.

Yet Kelly played one of his better all-around games in the 71-61 win over Michigan State on Friday night largely because of his reactionary defense. His doubles on center Derrick Nix the moment that Nix dribbled were flawless, Wojciechowski said. Throw in Kelly's seven rebounds and four blocks against the Spartans, along with the presence of 7-foot center Mason Plumlee, and Duke has a chance to combat Russ Smith’s Matrix moves in the paint.

You want to knock Duke for the perceived lack of imposing, physical play each year, feeding into the "soft" label that’s too loosely thrown around in college basketball?

Well, this is an example of how Duke plays tough. Double the post off the bounce, jam the inside shoulder and spin them back to the post defender. No aggression, no chest-beating, just precision.

That’s the kind of play “the Duke program is built on,” Kelly said.

Coaches have identified Kelly as arguably their best on-court "talker," which Kelly said he has had to acquire over time. He’s not a screamer. He’s not flashy. He estimates he said two words on defense in his first year on the court.

But he’s a direct communicator and relays the exact message that coaches want the players to hear.

In a game in which ball screens prevail, defensive communication is one of the most underrated components of college basketball.

Duke takes this process seriously, talking with players in one-on-one settings to decipher whether those players can make calls. Coaches want constant chatter on the court, but not all flourish at this. Players must conceptualize and react in less than a second. 

Kelly and guard Tyler Thornton are the most vocal on the court.

Barely breaking 200 pounds coming out of high school in Raleigh, N.C., the 6-foot-9 Kelly wasn't imposing defensively.

“I don’t think a lot of people pegged me as much of a defender when I came to Duke,” Kelly said. “But I’ve worked hard at it … I pride myself on changing that [perception].”

There’s little doubt Kelly’s 10-for-14 shooting performance against the Hurricanes on March 2 has sparked Duke, which is 6-1 since his return. Kelly had barely practiced in the days leading up to the game and still is rediscovering his game shape after sitting 13 games. Weeks before, he thought his college career might be over, which amplifies his personal urgency this week.

But Kelly also has rejoined a team that learned to play without him.

“Now he comes back, and they are even better,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.

Kelly said teams are still guarding him like a shooter despite the drought, which helps with spacing.

When he’s not making shots, he still has serious value.

But a stroke resurgence against Louisville would be convenient for Duke. Guard Seth Curry played off Kelly’s steady screens beautifully against Michigan State, shooting any time that MSU bigs provided the slightest cushion. But after missing valuable practice time all year with a stress fracture in his shin, Curry admits that rest “always does me good" -- rest that he won't get this weekend.

Curry scored his 29 off five days' rest, after shooting 5-for-15 off two days' rest in the NCAA Round of 32 against Creighton. The Michigan State and Louisville tips will be about 46 hours apart.

If Curry struggles and Mason Plumlee can’t get that hook shot off against Gorgui Dieng, Duke will be hoping Kelly can stretch the floor as well as he has stretched his defensive abilities.

“He’s a guy who could have a big game here offensively,” Wojciechowski said.


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