Ten days ago, Virginia was relishing a home victory over North Carolina in the teams' ACC basketball opener. With two winnable road games on the horizon, a 3-0 conference start certainly was plausible.
Meanwhile, Duke had ascended to No. 1 in the Associated Press national poll, and coach Mike Krzyzewski was entertaining questions about the long odds of the Blue Devils becoming Division I's first undefeated national champions since Indiana in 1976.
Two critical injuries later, Virginia and Duke are looking to rebound from defeats and adjust to depleted frontcourts. Indeed, if Darion Atkins and Ryan Kelly remain grounded too long, the Cavaliers' chances of a top-half ACC finish, and the Blue Devils' Final Four prospects, dim considerably.
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Atkins is battling pain near his right shin, while Kelly has a sprained right foot. Both are sidelined indefinitely.
A 6-foot-8 sophomore, Atkins averaged 9.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots in Virginia's first 11 games. He was shooting 56.3 percent from the field. He was active, disruptive and very quick off his feet.
But in the five outings since scoring a career-high 17 points against Morgan State, Atkins is averaging 2.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting 21.1 percent.
The Cavaliers are 2-3 in that stretch and have lost successive games, at Wake Forest and Clemson, for the first time this season. Virginia (11-5, 1-2 ACC) next plays Saturday against Florida State (10-6, 2-1) — the Seminoles have won the last seven meetings in the series.
Atkins is very unlikely to play Saturday, and his availability for the following game, Jan. 24 at Virginia Tech, is uncertain. Tests Monday revealed a "stress reaction" in the lower leg.
"When you watch on tape, and just seeing him, he's certainly favoring his leg, and he's not the same as he was earlier," coach Tony Bennett said. "Sometimes you can play if you're not quite 100 percent, but you gotta be close, and especially the way Darion plays and has been effective for us.
"It's unfortunate for him, but hopefully, whether it's the time of this week to rest or whatever the course of treatment is, we can get so he can go and play all-out and fly around. Because that's kind of his mentality with his versatility and activity on defense. And when he's not able to get out and show on screens as much or just be as active, it affects him and probably does affect our defense … more than most guys probably."
Mike Tobey, a 6-11 freshman, will play more minutes during Atkins' absence, and his shooting range can stretch defenses. But he's not nearly the interior presence that Atkins is, especially guarding the low post.
With Atkins, Virginia was unlikely to earn a second consecutive NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 1994 and '95. Without him for an extended period, the fine line that Bennett often references vanishes.
Third-ranked Duke (15-1, 2-1) has more margin for error than Virginia, but it's difficult to envision the Blue Devils reaching the Final Four without Kelly, a 6-11 senior who's their No. 3 scorer, No. 2 rebounder and best 3-point shooter.
In its first game without Kelly, Duke lost at North Carolina State on Saturday, and while replacements Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson combined for 18 points, they weren't nearly as effective as Kelly defensively. The 14th-ranked Wolfpack scored 84 points and shot 50.3 percent, both season highs for Duke opponents.
Kelly injured the same foot late last season and missed three games, two of which the Blue Devils lost, to Florida State in the ACC tournament and Lehigh in the NCAA tournament.
"Trying to chase what he had, we won't be able to do that," Krzyzewski said of the mix that produced a 15-0 start. "Hopefully he'll be able to come back at some time and that will help us recapture it."
While Kelly is Duke's most pressing concern, a right leg injury has limited guard Seth Curry's practice time. He rolled his left ankle against N.C. State but is expected to play Thursday against Georgia Tech.
"You don't know what he has to go through, or really the limited amount of practice that he has," Krzyzewski said, lauding Curry and the medical staff. "For him to have played in all of our games except one and really be a significant factor on this team is remarkable."
Duke and Virginia collide only once this season, Feb. 28 in Charlottesville. X-rays may be as important as Xs and Os.