With seven minutes left to play Tuesday, Cameron Indoor went silent as freshman Tre Jones hobbled over to the sideline, later limping out to the locker room after shooting his free throws.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his squad are no strangers to the injury bug, as a similar event happened just a couple weeks ago when Duke’s leading scorer and rebounder, freshman Zion Williamson, injured his knee against North Carolina, sidelining him to this day. For a while, the Cameron Crazies feared the same fate for Jones, something the Blue Devils could not afford with the ACC and NCAA tournaments afoot. Luckily for Duke, Jones returned four minutes later to run the offense and help secure a victory.
Along with Williamson and Jones, junior Marques Bolden sat out for a chunk of the second half with a hip injury, making it very difficult for the Blue Devils to protect the rim down the stretch and control the paint. Duke only outrebounded the much smaller Demon Deacons 44-40. All three of these injuries contributed to what was an exhausting and disappointing outing for the Blue Devils, who expected to win handily against the worst team in the ACC.
“Playing with not a full deck has been very difficult,” Krzyzewski said. “Our guys thought it was going to be easier, and when it wasn’t, we’re not old enough and we haven’t played together enough where you have all your pieces.”
Without their true point guard for a portion of the game, best true big man and second-most prolific scorer, the Blue Devil role players needed to step up and help freshman R.J. Barrett come away with a win, especially with freshman Cam Reddish—who finished with just six points—riding the pine due to foul trouble.
Sophomore Alex O’Connell tried his best, hitting three crucial 3-pointers, one of which gave Duke the lead for the final time of the contest. Krzyzewski inserted O’Connell into the starting lineup to replace Williamson against Syracuse, and since then the Roswell, Ga., native has stepped up in a big way, consistently hitting his open long range shots, something Duke has missed throughout the entire season.
“I’m ready to step up when they need me whether or not someone’s hurt,” O’Connell said. “I’ve been trying to play real solid these last four games I’ve started so I just gotta try to continue to build and to help my teammates out.”
Junior Jack White and sophomore Jordan Goldwire also provided quality minutes against Wake Forest, giving the team life and energy when needed. However, the occasional White 3-pointer will not be able to makeup for his inability to contend down low like Williamson or Bolden, and Goldwire’s commendable hustle on defense is no match for Jones’ all-around solid performances.
Without its full lineup—without Williamson in particular—Duke looks like an entirely different team, struggling to close out a team which shouldn’t have been able to compete in the first place.
“We’re not as good as we are with [Williamson],” Krzyzewski said. “You can’t put together a well oiled machine in a couple practices to play in this conference at a level when you lose a kid like that, and there is no kid like that.”
But for the time being, it looks like the Blue Devils will have to play without its star player, as Krzyzewski expressed his belief that Williamson will not suit up in Duke’s rematch with North Carolina Saturday.
Barrett, who led the game in scoring with 30, has been solid in Williamson’s absence despite his opponents having more time to key in on him. Since Williamson’s injury, Barrett has averaged 26.2 points per game, taking on the responsibility of creating offense without his partner in crime on the floor.
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The rest of his teammates, however, must step up to help him on the offensive side of the ball. Without Barrett’s shot chart, Duke shot a dreadful 30.8 percent from the field, which won’t cut it against tougher competition this Saturday or even in the beginning of the ACC tournament if Williamson is still missing in action.
Duke may have pulled some unlucky cards in terms of its health, but it must fight to regain some sort of firepower, and if the Blue Devils can pull it together before Williamson puts on a Duke jersey again, it will only make his return that much more impactful.