DURHAM – Given the circumstances, this would be the year for short rest to ruin a team like Duke.
The Blue Devils aren’t deep – they played only seven players in Saturday’s nervy win against Miami – and they have been held up by injuries. Ryan Kelly didn’t play for nearly two months because of a foot injury, and Seth Curry barely ever can participate in a full practice because of a nagging shin injury.
Further, Duke relies on three true freshman for a rough total of 50 minutes per game, and the average true freshman usually succumbs at least a little to the grind of classes and never-ending basketball responsibilities.
Yet Duke’s performances on short rest are bordering on an anomaly. The Blue Devils are 11-1 when playing a game 72 or fewer hours after their previous game.
“We have tough kids,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the Blue Devils’ success in short weeks. “And there are no excuses.”
Duke (25-4, 12-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) also has a pretty decent coach. Krzyzewski hasn’t had much choice in regards to practicing; a full gamut of practices could decimate Duke come game nights.
Instead, Krzyzewski and the staff have changed the way they prepare this Duke team, sacrificing valuable floor time for freshness and mental sharpness.
“Our coach knows that our practices can’t be that really, really tough on our bodies,” Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. “So we do a lot of film, a lot of mentally walking through things. Our coaches get us prepared for these games.”
Curry said the staff has been moving quickly, too, which he said helps the players feel ready when they have two games in a three- or four-day stretch.
“We do a good job preparing,” Curry said. “Coach does a good job of getting things in quick and so we’re just prepared if we have a few days. We gameplan real fast.”
Krzyzewski’s methods helped Duke not only survive Kelly’s absence, but stay near the top all the while.
In the seven-plus weeks Kelly was gone, Duke, which now ranked third, never fell lower than No. 6 in the rankings.
The Blue Devils won nine of their 13 games without their stretch power forward, including home wins against North Carolina and N.C. State.
“Our guys go 9-4 without Ryan, which is really one of the great stories,” Krzyzewski said. “When we had him out we were still judged with him. We weren’t judged without him, and that’s just what happens at Duke. And for our guys to maintain that level of performance to get nine out of 13 was terrific.”
Kelly returned – to put it as blandly as possible – and dominated, scoring a career-high 36 points in a tense game against the best team, record-wise, in the ACC.
Now that Kelly is back, Duke, which is second in the ACC and ranked No. 1 in RPI, appears to be in excellent position for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Duke beat the hard part, now it can focus on the important part.
“We needed something fresh, and Ryan gave us that (Saturday),” Duke forward Mason Plumlee said. “He just gives us a different dynamic. Just him being in a practice uniform (Friday) gave us a freshness.”
Even Krzyzewski admitted Duke wasn’t really the third-best team in the country without Kelly.
The coach said the Blue Devils deservedly earned respect because of their top-ranked strength-of-schedule, but he said Duke can make the ever-important shift into preparing for the postseason.
It isn’t just survival for the Blue Devils anymore.
“We were bailing water to make sure the ship stayed afloat, and we bailed enough to stay with a really good ranking,” Krzyzewski said. “... This (Miami) win was huge for us. The thing it does for us is it gives us a chance over the next few weeks to transition into the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re just running a little different race than anybody else right now. It doesn’t mean everything is OK, but it’s a lot better.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com.