CORAL GABLES, Fla.—Sitting in front of his locker as his teammates were filing into the showers, Luke Kennard was at a loss for words.
After winning seven straight games and playing their best basketball of the year earlier in February, the No. 10 Blue Devils find themselves back in a position that has become all too familiar this season—dealing with injuries and trying to make sense of a poor performance.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s just kind of frustrating,” Kennard said when asked about the impact Grayson Allen’s absence had on Duke’s 55-50 loss to Miami at the Watsco Center Saturday.
The defeat dropped the Blue Devils into a tie for fifth place in the ACC standings and three games behind North Carolina—just a week after Duke had pulled within one game of the Tar Heels and made an ACC regular-season title seem possible. With two regular season contests remaining, Duke is just fighting to clinch a first-round bye in the ACC tournament, something that was viewed as a given for the preseason No. 1 team.
But from the start of the year, injuries have altered the Blue Devils’ trajectory and prevented them from being the team that many expected would be the national title favorite in March. Saturday made it clear that fans may never see this Duke team at full strength because of the games and practices already missed.
Allen sat out the contest with a lingering ankle ailment. The Jacksonville, Fla., native—who also missed time with turf toe earlier in the season—sprained his ankle against Wake Forest Feb. 18 and was limited in the Blue Devils’ loss against Syracuse Wednesday despite playing 29 minutes.
But he’s not the only Duke leader who has not been at full strength.
Despite returning to the Blue Devil lineup after sitting out losses to Florida State and Louisville in January, graduate senior Amile Jefferson is still not healthy. The Philadelphia native is nursing the same right-foot bone bruise and his production has dipped because of it.
“I’ve been thinking about [Grayson] and Amile for a week because they’ve been playing hurt, bottom line,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They have no push. None. You can tell it on defense, on shooting.”
During the first part of the Blue Devils’ winning streak, Allen was starting to look more like the player that was a second-team All-American last year. The preseason ACC Player of the Year scored at least 19 points in four of those wins and was showcasing his typical explosiveness and athleticism.
Although Jefferson has never looked the same since initially hurting his foot—he averaged a double-double before the injury—the forward gave Duke 30 points combined against Wake Forest and Syracuse.
But now his injury appears to be more limiting, and as a result, Krzyzewski sat him most of the second half against the Hurricanes. Jefferson finished with four points and five rebounds in just 21 minutes.
“I’ve got to make a decision with Amile. He’s not running. He is not running at all,” Krzyzewski said.
The impact of Allen and Jefferson’s injuries was evident against Miami. With Allen out, the Blue Devils looked to Kennard, senior Matt Jones and freshmen Frank Jackson and Jayson Tatum to carry an additional scoring load on the wing.
Although Jackson registered one of his best games of the season with 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, Kennard, Tatum and Jones were unable to find a consistent rhythm. The trio finished a combined 12-of 45 from the floor with 28 points. At times, Kennard and Tatum had to force shots against Miami’s zone defense, contributing to the Blue Devils’ season-low 31.8 field goal percentage.
Duke received even less offensive production from its two freshmen big men—who also began the season injured along with Tatum. With Jefferson on the bench in the second half, the Blue Devils had to rely more on Harry Giles—who started in Allen’s absence—and Marques Bolden. Although they combined for 11 rebounds, the freshmen showed their inexperience and combined for just two points.
Bolden had several opportunities to make plays at the rim, but was unable to finish or mishandled the ball. Giles had a chance to make it a one-possession game with 37.7 seconds left and his team down by five, but missed both free throws as part of Duke’s ugly 3-of-9 effort from the charity stripe.
“The two big guys just haven’t had the experience because of injuries,” Krzyzewski said. “So they’re cutting their teeth so to speak in the 16th ACC game in late February.”
Whether Giles and Bolden can somehow make a major leap and the overall team’s health will both be critical factors for the Blue Devils as they begin tournament play in the coming weeks.
That’s why Krzyzewski said he’s still considering his options about what to do with Allen and Jefferson in Duke’s final two regular season games against No. 19 Florida State and at the No. 8 Tar Heels.
“We’ll have to make those decisions,” Krzyzewski said. “I just don’t know. I’ll look at the big picture.”
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