PHILADELPHIA — There was no way for Ryan Kelly to ease back in.
He had missed 13 games with a right foot injury, and the urgency only built in his absence.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had been trying to keep things together internally and manage expectations externally, but even he was starting to sound antsy.
His roster wasn’t exactly stocked without the 6-foot-11-inch, 230-pound senior, who shoots nearly 50 percent from 3-point territory.
“No one really could take his place,” Krzyzewski said. “Otherwise, they would have been playing a lot, too.”
So, earlier this month, when it finally looked like Kelly was healthy enough to play, he didn’t have the luxury of tuning up.
First, the Miami team that launched its campaign to be this year’s NCAA darlings at Duke’s expense, running it up on the Blue Devils on national television, was coming back to Cameron Indoor Stadium in first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The next week, Duke had another meeting with rival North Carolina.
The week after that was the ACC tournament.
“I can’t argue with the fact that I was thrown into the fire,” Kelly said. “But I wanted to be thrown into the fire.”
Sitting out so long only made him miss the showcase games. So, when Kelly poured in 36 points against Miami in 32 minutes, sending a message by ending the Hurricanes’ 13-game conference winning streak, it was like he was getting it all out.
“It was divine intervention,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m Catholic, and we got holy water for Fatima and just doused him with it. That couldn’t happen, what he did.”
If Kelly has learned anything this season, it’s how painfully fine the line is between being a question mark and an X-factor.
Without him, the Blue Devils were a talented (but thin) team, somehow finding ways to hang around the top 10 (and even be top-ranked) while tiptoeing through a minefield of injuries and adversity.
With him, they’re an offensive force with depth on the bench and the potential to make a deep run in a wide-open NCAA Tournament, starting on Friday against Albany.
Albany coach Will Brown said he had “migraines all week” watching film of the Blue Devils.
“With a healthy Ryan Kelly — and I believe he’s healthy right now — I think they’re the best team in the NCAA Tournament,” Brown said.
Brown understands he’s dealing with a different animal. Duke is 18-1 with Kelly this season, 4-0 against top-five teams.
Even though, like last year when Duke lost to 15th-seeded Lehigh, the Blue Devils are a No. 2 seed. But Brown couldn’t bring himself to use Duke’s early exit a year ago as motivation for his team.
Kelly didn’t play.
The same right foot kept him out of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments last year.
“I don’t think we’ll catch them sleepwalking,” Brown said.
But after setting the bar so high against the Hurricanes, Kelly had to cool the flames.
“I think what happened [against] Miami was kind of an amazing thing,” Kelly said. “But now it’s just time for us to play our best. All that’s in the past. We’re healthy. We’re going into this tournament full force.”
The truth is that the same way Duke had to adjust to life without Kelly, it now has to get used to having him back.
“We’ve had to figure out how to play with him, not just watch him, like after that first game,” senior guard Seth Curry said. “Just kind of getting back to how we started the season. Guys are excited. It’s kind of a new team again and we kind of got reenergized. It’s fun to have him back. It just allows us to play a lot of different ways.”
Game to game, Krzyzewski patched together lineups without Kelly. Some nights, he’d play as few as seven players. In that sense, some order was restored as soon as Kelly was plugged back in the starting lineup.
“I would say our biggest benefit is our bench,” said senior forward Mason Plumlee.
For the season, Kelly has averaged 14.3 points and 5.4 rebounds. But in the last four games (padded by the numbers against Miami), the averages are 17.5 and 5.5.
“It’s a little bit easier to get adjusted to [having] him than to [being] without him because we don’t have anybody like him,” Krzyzewski said. “When he went out, our guys did a terrific job. But since then, everyone welcomes him back and it’s more of him getting adjusted. I think we’ve adjusted to him real easy, it’s who is he now?”
Kelly understands it’s a process.
“I knew there would be a process of reintegrating myself and for my teammates back onto the court,” Kelly said. “We all knew it was going to take some time.”
But it has to be a quick one.
“I just feel blessed to be in the position I’m in,” Kelly said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play again. Having missed the tournament last year, for my senior year to be back and to be playing in this tournament, obviously for every team there’s a lot of excitement surrounding it, but I feel like there can’t be many people more excited than me.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.