Through two games this season, the Blue Devils have lost two of their captains to minor, albeit nagging, injuries. All Duke has to show for it is an impressive 0-0 record, despite scoring more than 100 points in each game and winning by an average margin of 54.5 points.
As guard Matt Jones walked off the court gingerly in an exhibition against Florida Southern and Amile Jefferson was helped off the court a game later against Livingstone, Blue Devil fans found themselves in a collective state of panic. Injuries to two of the team’s most experienced rotation players meant that Duke would be forced to rely even more heavily on a freshman- and sophomore-laden roster.
Although Jones and Jefferson are now back practicing, the near-disastrous exhibition games for the Blue Devils once again raise questions about the value of exhibition contests in the first place.
Sure, injuries are part of the game and the same injuries to Jones and Jefferson could certainly have happened during a tough practice. But playing in an uncontrolled setting against a Division II team that is out to prove it can play with the big boys, players are exposed to a higher level of risk.
But the biggest argument against exhibition contests is how shockingly little they teach us about a team. Remember during preseason NFL action when the Philadelphia Eagles soared past their first three opponents by an average margin of 20.7 points and appeared to have the NFL’s best offense? Neither do I. Tyus Jones—last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player—averaged just six points per game in Duke’s two exhibition tilts last year.
Against Florida Southern in particular, the Blue Devils were forced to match up with five guards—an anomaly that forced freshman Luke Kennard to play at the four position. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted after the game that there wasn’t much to take away about the team’s regular season rotation, and I couldn’t find a reason why the Blue Devils should’ve even taken the floor in the first place. Are we really expecting Marshall Plumlee to showcase the same array of hook shots and interior dominance that he did against an undersized Florida Southern squad against a scary-good Kentucky team in a week’s time?
As a fan watching the game, I must admit that I hardly knew what the score was in either exhibition. Outside of seeing the walk-ons take the floor, there simply wasn’t much to get excited about in watching Duke beat Division II opponents to a pulp. Granted, the experience of playing in Cameron must’ve been exhilarating for the Blue Devils’ opponents. But if that’s the case, why not just make the game a regular season contest?
Last season, Duke cruised through its exhibition schedule by an average winning margin of 48.5 points. Once the calendar flipped to the regular season, the Blue Devils beat their first two opponents—Presbyterian and Fairfield—by an even wider spread of 59.5 points, even though they were playing on consecutive nights.
The NBA and NFL have discussed the idea of eliminating or reducing the length of the preseason in order to preserve their players’ health for the regular season and college football doesn’t even have a preseason. With college basketball continuing all the way until early April, extra rest and time in the classroom for student-athletes seems far more beneficial than taking the court for an essentially meaningless game.
In the next two weeks alone, the Blue Devils will play five games, including three against NCAA tournament teams from a year ago and two potential matchups with Final Four teams. Losing Jefferson and/or Jones for any of these contests could leave Duke short-handed and hurt their chances. After all, Blue Devil fans should understand the importance of resume-building non-conference victories as the team’s case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament a year ago was bolstered by a road victory against Wisconsin.
For the umpteenth time in a row, Duke finished exhibition play undefeated. Finally, it’s time for the real show to begin.
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