CHAPEL HILL—Grayson Allen launched the ball high into the air, beginning the Blue Devil celebration after a gritty, come-from-behind win against the Tar Heels. But as riveting as the victory was, it likely came at a cost.
If youth and depth were concerns in the past, they are red flags in the present.
Duke junior Matt Jones went down with a little less than eight minutes to go in the first half of the Blue Devils' 74-73 win Wednesday with a sprained left ankle that left him writhing in pain on the court for nearly three minutes. Jones had to be helped off the floor and later returned to the bench on crutches.
With a second captain injured, Duke navigated around Jones' absence Wednesday, but the DeSoto, Texas, native will be tough to replace if forced to the sideline for any extended period of time.
“Matt’s just first and foremost a leader,” freshman Derryck Thornton said. “He’s been here for three years and he’s a great leader and he helps us on the court. He’s a good defender and just a great player overall, and we’re going to miss that from him. We’re going to miss that, but he’ll be back soon.”
Although the point guard seemed optimistic, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was more direct.
“[He] sprained his ankle pretty badly, so I’m not sure how long he’ll be out,” Krzyzewski said.
As Jones went for a rebound following his own miss, the guard's left foot appeared to come down awkwardly on the heel of North Carolina’s Brice Johnson. After being tended to by Krzyzewski and team officials, Jones was helped off the court by Sean Obi and walk-on Brennan Besser, unable to put weight on his left foot.
A quick turnaround certainly does not help the Blue Devils, who have a noon game against No. 18 Louisville Saturday. With just five players playing more than 32 minutes Wednesday, Duke's players will have to recharge heading into a matchup with the physical Cardinals.
But one thing is for sure. Although the names on the backs of the jersey may be the same, the players wearing them for Duke are not the same as they were early in the season.
“You know, at one point we had four freshmen and a sophomore out there, and to have the toughness they displayed with that youth is incredible," Krzyzewski said. “Marshall [Plumlee] and Matt and Grayson [Allen] have helped them.”
For the pieces that remain, Jones’ injury means that each individual must take his play to the next level.
If Jones sits out, Luke Kennard will likely to shift into the starting lineup. The freshman has made five starts already this season and had another strong performance in Wednesday’s win, recording 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including a late 3-pointer to give Duke a 72-71 lead with 2:39 left.
As for bench depth, the Blue Devils may have to face the likelihood of not having a scorer among their reserves. Add in any sort of foul trouble, and Duke becomes a team that may have a hard time just getting enough bodies on the floor, regardless of their level of play.
But after smooth sailing for much of the regular season a year ago, facing adversity has almost become the norm for this year’s team.
“For us to play through the adversity we already have with someone like Amile being out, and then we get even more thrown on our plate and Matt gets hurt for the moment—to be able to fight through that, you really get tougher as a team mentally,” Plumlee said. “Ideally, moving forward we’re going to be even tougher.”
Duke may have been mentally tough enough to withstand the absence of Jefferson, but whether it is possible for them to continue to be physically tough enough without two of its captains remains to be seen. The Blue Devils now sport a roster with only five players getting consistent rotation minutes. Freshman Chase Jeter was the only other Blue Devil to see the court Wednesday—the Las Vegas native grabbed one rebound in five minutes—but could be forced into a bigger role by necessity as the size of the bench shrinks even further.
When Jefferson’s injury threatened to define their season, the Blue Devils overcame his lost production and rose to the challenge behind the play of Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram. Now, Duke will have to show its heart and grit once again with another captain possibly on the sidelines.
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