Virginia takes down Duke in telling ACC matchup
Virginia beat Duke Thursday night in a very Duke way, getting calls and loose balls and frustrating an opponent by making them bend to their preferred style. It's a huge moment for the Cavaliers, who are starting to carve out a selection profile that better matches their on-court ability. It's looking more likely that they will overcome their CAA follies and land in the official field of 68.
But the big story coming out of Charlottesville isn't potential movement in the lower part of the bracket. It's Duke, or this version of Duke, the one that's now 9-4 in 13 games in a mediocre ACC without Ryan Kelly. It's a large enough sample, with several other close calls built in, to say with significant assurance that this is what *this* Duke team is. Basically, just another good team that's eminently beatable.
That makes Ryan Kelly, and his speculated return to the floor, the biggest story of the next two weeks.
For several weeks now, there have been hints about Kelly's return. Earlier this week, there was talk of Kelly "targeting" senior night on March 5 for his return. Mike Krzyzewski said he expected Kelly back soon, but didn't have a concrete timeframe. According to Kelly, he had been doing some on-court work, but confined to the pool for most of his running. There were reports Kelly was still wearing a boot to protect his injured foot. Before Thursday's game, Kelly (sans boot) was seen taking some three-pointers in warmups, but who knows what that means in terms of his actual return to the court. Right now, there are no absolutes when it comes to his return.
That's important because the NCAA selection committee isn't in the business of speculating on players or guessing that they will return to form. Famously, Cincinnati was downgraded to a 2-seed after losing Kenyon Martin to a broken leg in its conference tournament. More recently, Saint Mary's was left out of the tournament altogether when star guard Patty Mills made it back from an injury, but didn't look good in his limited minutes before Selection Sunday. The Gaels were deemed not to be the same team without him, and they were treated accordingly. There are other examples of the committee adjusting a team (up or down) based on available personnel on Selection Sunday. Just telling them a player will be back for the NCAA tournament isn't enough. They need to see it beforehand.
This currently is not the same Duke team that beat Kentucky and then ran through the Battle 4 Atlantis and then beat Ohio State at home. It's not even close. They were handled at NC State and trampled at Miami and lost at Maryland and nearly fell to Wake Forest and Boston College. Virginia hammered the point home with gusto Thursday night. No one is afraid of this Duke team, nor should they be.
*If* Duke gets Kelly back soon, and *if* Kelly looks good when he plays, and *if* Duke looks more like the team from the last two months of 2012 when he comes back, then they will be treated with the respect their track record as a complete team deserves. But in composite, that's far from a given at this point, and Duke and Kelly only have 16 days to fix it. Otherwise, even in a season where the 1-seed line is as fluid as any time in recently memory, Duke might not be on it on March 17.