After relying on a guard-heavy lineup for most of the season, the Blue Devils opted for a bigger front line Saturday with freshman Jayson Tatum returning from his foot sprain and guards Frank Jackson and Grayson Allen sitting due to ailments of their own.
With a matchup against a Florida team starting three players 6-foot-8 or taller and injury questions still surrounding Duke, the burning question for Blue Devil fans is how head coach Mike Krzyzewski will distribute minutes.
No. 5 Duke will face off against the 21st-ranked Gators in the Jimmy V Classic Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden in New York. After struggling through injuries to begin the year, the Blue Devils started to heal with the debuts of Tatum and freshman Marques Bolden in Saturday’s 94-55 victory against Maine.
“It gives us more depth. I was happy to see Jayson and Marques back out there,” senior Matt Jones said following the win against the Black Bears. “I know they were excited to play. We’ve just to keep getting better as a team, trust in coach and find ways to integrate everybody.”
But the integration process for Duke (8-1) could be a bumpy one with Tatum and Bolden still working their way back into the fold, Jackson nursing a sore foot and Allen managing a turf toe injury he suffered earlier in the year. The two guards are expected to suit up for Tuesday’s game, but it is unclear whether they will be hampered against a physical Florida defense.
The good news for the Blue Devils is that Tatum and Bolden showed flashes of what made them two of the most highly-touted recruits in the country a year ago. Although Tatum finished with 10 points on just 2-of-8 shooting from the floor in 20 minutes before cramping up, the swingman showed the ability to get to the basket at will in transition.
Bolden was the first player off the bench for Duke Saturday and was largely held in check outside of consecutive putbacks in the second half. The big man finished with seven points and five rebounds in just 12 minutes, but will likely see more time Tuesday.
“I’m not quite myself yet, but that’s coming along during the season,” Bolden said. “There was no [minutes] restriction, it was just seeing how I feel then going from there.”
But the question for the two freshmen remains conditioning, as Bolden and Tatum played in live action for the first time in more than a month.
“I was really pleased to get that amount of minutes,” Krzyzewski said. “Jayson [had] cramps—it had nothing to do with injury. Marques just got tired and once we got to that point, we said that’s good enough.”
As the Blue Devils enter the contest with uncertainty surrounding their rotation, the Gators travel to New York having used the same starting lineup in every game this season. Florida (7-1) has gotten off to a strong start behind a stout defense that ranks eighth in statistician Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.
A big reason for the team's strong interior defense is 6-foot-11 center John Egbunu, who has 20 blocks on the season. As a team, the Gators rank ninth in the country in blocks per game and have the length down low to bother Duke at the rim.
But the Blue Devils’ versatility on offense will challenge Florida’s defense in a way that few teams have this season.
Coming off a career-high 35 points Saturday, sophomore Luke Kennard continues to lead Duke with an average of 19.4 points per game. Graduate student Amile Jefferson has also been a force down low and the team’s plethora of backcourt options has the Blue Devils leading the nation in Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency metric.
Jumping out to an early lead could be pivotal for Duke considering the Gators’ porous 31.5 percent mark from beyond the arc. The trio of KeVaughn Allen, Canyon Berry and Devin Robinson has combined for almost half of Florida’s scoring output per game, but the Gators seem to lack a go-to scoring threat that can manufacture an open shot for the team on any given possession.
For two programs that have not met since Florida upset the No. 1 seed Blue Devils in the Sweet 16 in 2000, there is still a connection between the teams that will take the floor in the Big Apple.
The Gators are coached by Mike White, the son of Kevin White, Duke's vice president and director of athletics. Florida’s entrance into the national rankings a week ago was the first time the Gators have been in the top 25 in White’s two seasons at the helm.
Tuesday’s contest will bring the Blue Devils back to the familiar confines of Madison Square Garden, where Duke dropped its only game of the season to then-No. 7 Kansas three weeks ago.
Since that time, the approach has changed significantly for Krzyzewski and company. After wondering how they would play with a six-man rotation and limited depth due to injuries, the Blue Devils now find themselves trying to fit many pieces of a puzzle together on the fly.
“We’ve got to keep finding minutes for these guys," Krzyzewski said. "We’ve got to put this thing together while we’re playing games."
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