With Ryan Kelly back, Duke appears to be a much more formidable contender for the national title.
The Blue Devils hope Kelly's return will help spark the team heading into a matchup with their archrival and then tournament play, but first they must take care of the squad sitting at the bottom of the ACC.
Third-ranked Duke will try to build on a stirring victory as it faces Virginia Tech on Tuesday night in the final home game for Kelly and fellow seniors Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee. Duke has won eight of nine in the series and is 20-2 all-time against the Hokies at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Blue Devils (25-4, 12-4) already found out last season how important Kelly is when they lost him for postseason play to a sprained foot. They went 1-2, losing in the ACC tournament semifinals before being knocked off by 15th-seeded Lehigh in the NCAA tournament.
This season's path was starting to appear all too familiar, with Duke going 9-4 after Kelly injured the same foot in January. But he returned to score a career-high 36 points in a 79-76 win over then-No. 5 Miami on Saturday.
Duke is 16-0 with Kelly in the lineup this season.
"I mean, me saying 'spectacular' or whatever doesn't do his performance justice," said coach Mike Krzyzewski, who notched his 400th ACC victory. "One for the ages. Probably as good a performance as any player has had -- a Duke player has had -- in Cameron."
Kelly, whose previous career best was 23 points, shot 10 of 14 from the field, including 7 of 9 from 3-point range over 32 minutes as Duke avenged a 27-point loss to the Hurricanes in January.
The 6-foot-11 forward is also a key to the Blue Devils' defense. Opponents have averaged 61.3 points per game on 38.2 percent shooting in games with Kelly, compared to 70.7 points on 46.8 percent shooting without him.
"The thing (the win) does for us is it gives us a chance over the next few weeks to transition to the NCAA tournament," Krzyzewski said. "We're just running a little bit different race than anybody else right now. And it doesn't mean everything's OK, but it's a lot better."
Duke also is eager for Saturday's visit to North Carolina, but it must avoid looking past the Hokies.
Virginia Tech (13-16, 4-12) remains last in the conference, though it has followed a nine-game losing streak with two wins in its last three contests.
Erick Green, the nation's leading scorer with 25.0 points per game, had 29 on 8-of-12 shooting in his final home game Saturday, leading the Hokies to a 69-61 win over Clemson.
"He goes from two points a game as a freshman to leading the nation in scoring," coach James Johnson told Virginia Tech's official website. "That shows what hard work can do for you, and that's how we want to build this program and that's the type of kids I want to get in the program."
Green was 8 of 14 for 22 points in an 88-56 home loss to Duke on Feb. 21. Even without Kelly, the Blue Devils shot 12 of 17 from 3-point range as Curry hit 5 of 6 and scored 22.