PHILADELPHIA — No player taking the court for Sunday’s NCAA tournament game between Duke and Creighton will have a greater appreciation for the moment than the Blue Devils’ Ryan Kelly.
The 6-foot-11 forward missed 13 games with a foot injury. There were times when Kelly feared his senior season would end with him on the bench rather than on the court.
“I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in right now,” Kelly said before Duke’s Saturday practice at the Wells Fargo Center. “I have a greater sense of excitement every time I step on the floor, knowing that this can be taken away that easily.”
Kelly returned to the lineup five games ago. He’s averaged almost 16 points and six rebounds a game since he came back in a March 2 win over then-third-ranked Miami.
He had eight points and six rebounds in Friday’s second-round victory over Albany that advanced the Blue Devils into Sunday’s game against Creighton and left Kelly facing one of the toughest assignments of his career.
He’ll try to slow Bluejays All-American Doug McDermott, whom he got to know when the two were roommates last summer at the Amar’e Stoudemire Big Man Camp in Chicago.
That chance meeting left Kelly and McDermott bombarded with questions about each other’s rooming habits. It got to a point that Kelly just shook his head in the face of questions such as whether McDermott made his bed daily or not.
“It makes for a nice story line for you guys,” Kelly said, “but none of that matters when we step on the floor.”
What will matter is how Kelly fares against McDermott, who averages 23.2 points and 7.6 rebounds a game. Duke can’t afford to let McDermott get loose, as he’s repeatedly shown the ability to carry his team in games against some of Creighton’s toughest opponents.
“He’s one of the best scorers in the country, if not the best,” Kelly said. “He does it inside and out, he can shoot the ball, has good post moves and he’s constantly in motion.
“We’re just going to have to battle him. It’s going to be five players on the court that are going to have to defend him, and he’ll be ready.”
Kelly undoubtedly will get some help, but he’ll draw the primary assignment against McDermott. Although he said the thought of him being a defensive stopper would have been laughable when he joined the program, Kelly’s influence on that end of the court is undeniable.
The Blue Devils have allowed an average of 61.8 points in the 20 games Kelly has played. Without him, Duke has surrendered 70.7 points per contest.
“He’s made great improvement over the years,” Duke senior Mason Plumlee said. “He’s gained a lot of confidence, and that’s helped when he’s had to guard guys like Deshaun Thomas and other high-level players we’ve asked him to guard.
“We absolutely have a lot of faith in him.”
Thomas is Ohio State’s All-Big Ten forward, and his game reminds Kelly of the one he’ll face against McDermott.
“There are some similarities there,” Kelly said, “but Doug is in a class of his own. There aren’t many players like him in the country. He can score the basketball all over the court.”
Kelly, too, boasts a multi-faceted game. He has made 34 3-point baskets and shoots 46.6 percent from beyond the arc. His overall field-goal percentage is 47.6, and when he gets to the foul line, he shoots 81.7 percent.
Duke is 19-1 with Kelly this season and 9-4 without him.
“They’re a different team with him than they were in the middle of their conference season when they were without him,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “With him, Duke might be one of the favorites to win the national championship.”
Kelly and Plumlee already have one of those: they were freshmen on the Duke team that won the 2010 championship. The Blue Devils made it back to the Sweet 16 in 2011 but were bounced out of the tournament last year when Lehigh pulled off a 75-70 victory in the second round.
That loss leaves Duke’s senior starters with a well-defined mission heading into Sunday’s game. Besides Kelly and Plumlee, the senior class includes Seth Curry, who was a redshirt in 2010 after transferring from Liberty.
“This is our senior year,” Kelly said. “If we lose, we’re done playing basketball for Duke. We don’t want to accept that.
“We can’t afford to lose.”
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