Since walking out of the Greensboro Coliseum 6 nights ago, taunted, cursed, and heckled by the worst of the worst UNC fans (All 15K+ of them), I have been searching for a word to describe the revelation I experienced. "Cog", "Cornerstone", "Linchpin", etc. 6 days later, having given it much thought, I still did not find the word I was looking for, so I settled on "Bridge". Forgive me if it does not accurately capture what I am ultimately trying to portray with this thread.

On the ride home, having watched the 3rd of 3 Duke games without Ryan Kelly in the lineup in person, it hit me upside the head like a brick, that I had missed something with this team all year long. Silly me. I authored one of the Phase threads, totally missing this key point. Wrote numerous other posts on this team, totally missing this point. Yeah, everyone and their mother knew this team had a problem in trying to replace Kyle Singler at Small Forward, Wing Forward (hey K does not have positions bonehead). Position defined or not, we all knew it was a gap. Which it was. No rocket science there. However, it was not "The Gap". As Mr Sumner so eloquently reminded us earlier tonight in another thread, Duke has won and won big playing 3 guards before. Those teams though, all had very versatile "forwards" to bridge the gap I am speaking of, between the true bigs and the true guards. The bigs on those team had help in the paint on both ends. This year, the Plumlee's had Ryan Kelly and no one else. One guy. Very versatile of course, but not great at guarding small forwards that took him outside like he did big guys on the other end. Still, Ryan was the one guy.

Ironically, earlier in the week preceding the Lehigh game, a good friend of mind at work who is a UNC grad, commented to me, "You know, the Plumlee's take way too much heat. They are not bad players at all. In fact, I view them as good players with Mason being a really good player. They just don't have any help. They are on the floor with 3 shrimps all night". I commented that he was correct, and we had a great discussion regarding the position the Kelly injury had put Duke in.

I love Duke hoops obviously, but watching the guys play without Kelly was downright painful. So disconnected, disjointed, like trying to put together a puzzle without the corner piece. 2 Centers in Mason and Miles, trying to play with very small guards in Seth, Tyler, Austin, Andre and Cook. Foul! You cry! Andre is 6'5 and Austin is 6'5! Yeah, but how tall did they play? Do you see them as Forwards or Guards? Did they play like Forwards or Guards? I think the obvious answer is guards. Neither were great at mixing it up in the paint. Maybe they should be better at that, but that's not really my point here. Not to leave him out, Josh had some shining moments while Ryan was out, he just struggled with his jumper and could not stretch the defense like Kelly. I hope the experience bodes well for Josh down the road. The shame of it, is all of those guys are good players in their own right. Together though, without Kelly, they were dysfunctional.

With Murph RedShirting, and Gbinije needing more time to develop, the only true "forward" this team had was Ryan Kelly. Ryan Kelly was the bridge that glued the Plums and the Guards together, and K did a wonderful job finding a way to take that one forward and make it work. With Ryan Kelly, 26-5, Maui champs, 2nd in the ACC, 8-0 on the ACC Road, with wins over Michigan, Kansas, Mich St, UNC, FSU, all away from the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor. Without Ryan Kelly: 1-2 with a loss to some school named Lehigh.
Time and time again, Mason and Miles (and Kelly during the season) would battle in the paint with other bigs, and in comes flying an opponents 6-7/6-8 forward to steal a rebound, followup dunk, block a shot, etc. Once Kelly went down, and it was just Miles and Mason, the bridge was gone. Everything down to a simple pass became more difficult to execute. Defenses packed it in against Mason, cut off driving lanes for Austin and Seth, and hedged hard on the perimeter with the threat of pick and pop gone. Ryan was just critical to this team. Way more critical than I realized most of the season.

This is ending up longer than I had intended, but allow me just a few more thoughts. Imagine this team with Mason/Miles at the 5, Kelly/Tony Lang at the 4, Brian Davis/Andre at the 3, and everything else the same. Think Mason isn't a beast with that kind of help? How good is that team defensively and offensively?

At the end of the day, "bridge" is probably the wrong word. Feel free to pick a better one. I just know now that Kelly was key. Losing him derailed the season. I don't know how far Duke would have went in either tourney if Kelly never goes down, I just know now, without him, they were doomed to go home early.