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Duke men's basketball needs to adapt without Zion Williamson ahead of tough stretch

<p>Without Williamson, Javin DeLaurier will need to pick up some slack defensively.</p>

Without Williamson, Javin DeLaurier will need to pick up some slack defensively.

As Duke has dived head first in the one-and-done era, Blue Devil squads of recent memory have been consistently critiqued for one key shortcoming: lack of depth.

And with National Player of the Year frontrunner Zion Williamson out indefinitely with a mild knee sprain, Duke will have to scrape together a new game plan for one of the toughest stretches of the season to come.

From just watching Luke Maye and Cam Johnson eviscerate the Blue Devils in the paint Wednesday night, it was clear that Duke's offense and defense up to this point in the season had been stripped away. Although the Blue Devils were solid in defending the perimeter, forcing a hot-shooting North Carolina team to shoot just 2-for-20 from the field, Duke's interior presence was practically nonexistent.

"We have to figure out what this means," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We’re not going to draw any conclusions from this game, except the fact that we have a loss. That’s a definite conclusion. How we’re going to play, what we’re going to do, we have to come up with a game plan based on Zion not playing. Hopefully he’ll be back playing sometime in the near future."

Maye, a forward who tends to do best when he can physically overpower his defender, made uncontested layups and easy rebounds to control the entire pace of the evening. Johnson, usually usually a shoot-first threat from the wing was able to slice through with ease and lay down the hurt from down low. With junior captain Javin DeLaurier struggling with foul trouble and Marques Bolden thoroughly mismatched in terms of speed, the Tar Heels feasted for a staggering 62 points in the paint.

On the offensive end, things didn't look much better for the Blue Devils.

In the past, when R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish or Tre Jones struggled to cut inside, Duke could at least rely on its strategy of "give the ball to Zion" to generate some instant offensive pressure. But without the Blue Devils' most efficient scorer from down low, Duke instead opted to generate offense from long range—with shoddy results. The Blue Devils shot a 20.5 percent clip from three on 39 shots—more than half of the attempts Duke made all game.

"Not having Zion hurt," junior captain Jack White said. "It felt like the ball couldn’t go in the hoop and we were discouraged us from the start. It affected how we played. There’s no excuse for that kind of slow start, especially like this."

With Williamson out, the Blue Devils have a massive gap to fill on both sides of the ball that Duke's bench will most likely struggle to fill. Without the Spartanburg, S.C., native, the Blue Devils will likely slot in DeLaurier or White to take Williamson's position at the four. Although DeLaurier had solid moments this evening with aggressive plays on both offense and defense to spark Duke runs, the junior forward has consistently struggled with foul trouble this season, relegating him to limited usage.

White has always been a reliable defender for the Blue Devils, but has struggled mightily to generate any sort of real offense despite a hot start to the season. If the junior forward can't get out of his current rut, Duke's already questionable Williamson-less offense may stall out.

"He’s a dominant player, so for him to be out we really have to try and figure out different things. Maybe play me at the four, maybe go bigger. We’ll see," Barrett said on possible adjustments to make without his teammate.

Looking at the Blue Devils' coming matchups, Williamson's injury couldn't have come at a worse time. Saturday, Duke hits the road to take on Syracuse—the other team to take down the Blue Devils at home, that time when Duke was short of Jones and Reddish. Without Williamson, the Blue Devils won't have the same interior presence to break down the center of the Orange's vaunted 2-3 zone, meaning Duke may have to yet again rely on long-range shooting to get out of serious scoring ruts.

The Blue Devils' road campaign doesn't get much easier from there, as Duke will face Virginia Tech on the road Tuesday—a venue that has eluded the Blue Devils the past two years. Although the Hokies use a much smaller, shooter-heavy lineup compared to Syracuse, losing Williamson means the Blue Devils won't have a size mismatch to exploit down low for easy buckets.

At the end of the day, this Duke squad has survived being shorthanded before—the Blue Devils took down Virginia despite lacking a true point guard in Jones. But with Williamson out, Duke has big holes to fill—and not much time to do so.

"It’s not the be all, end all," White said. "At the end of the day it’s one game, as much as it sucks to lose it. We’ve got to move on just like it’s any other game, just like it’s any other opponent."


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