This wasn’t hard to see coming from a long way away. It was hazy on the horizon in November, then looming over Duke the moment Amile Jefferson went down. Duke was unavoidably going to struggle at some point this season. That moment has arrived.
Having lost three in a row for the first time since 2007, accepting the inevitability of it all doesn’t make it any easier for Duke to stomach. On the contrary, losing all three games with a chance to win in the final minute makes it all the more cruel, which was unquestionably the case in Monday’s 64-62 loss to Syracuse.
So the cold, dark days of winter are here, as they were always going to be, with inexperienced starters and a shallow bench and a point guard who would, under other circumstances, still be in high school. It was going to be a difficult slog through the ACC even before Jefferson was hurt, a catastrophic loss.
The slog is on, one game after another, Duke’s players looking more and more exhausted with each one, without another home game for almost three weeks. How Duke responds to this will determine not only how long these dark days last, but where the Blue Devils end up this season.
“We know we can fight. We’re so close,” Duke guard Matt Jones said. “For us to be such a young team and us to go through the time we’re going through right now, the positives of it are, when March comes, and we’re lucky enough to make the tournament, we can hang our hats on, we have been in close games. Now it’s just a matter of finishing.”
In homage to 2014’s favorite rivalry, Monday’s game came down to a final, controversial call. Two years ago, the charging call on Syracuse’s C.J. Fair went Duke’s way, prompting Jim Boeheim’s famous lap of midcourt. (And Duke’s students chanted “Take your coat off!” at Boeheim on Monday, who briefly pretended to again doff his jacket to the mutual amusement of all.)
This time, the no-calls went Syracuse’s way, both involving Duke’s Jones – when he was stripped of a rebound at his own free-throw line with Duke down one, and then on his last-second heave from beyond half-court amid two Syracuse players. The latter was apparently too late to count anyway, and it was the former that had Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski going through the motions in the handshake line as he strained to stalk after the officials as they left the court.
Jones sits at the epicenter of Duke’s agony, missing a 3-pointer that would have tied Clemson late and a potential go-ahead 3-pointer late against Notre Dame before going 2-for-11 from 3-point range Monday and finding himself in the middle of what turned out to be the game’s pivotal play.
With or without Jefferson, this particular group was always going to have some issues finding its way in ACC play, relying so heavily on players navigating unknown waters, down to essentially a six-man rotation with Sean Obi used sparingly – and not to great effect – and Chase Jeter benched entirely.
None of them looked like they had ever seen Syracuse’s 2-3 zone before, and really, only Jones had. Syracuse completely dominated the offensive boards in the second half, and it took everything Duke had just to get back into the game late. It wasn’t enough.
“The game is tremendous,” Krzyzewski said. “It can be incredibly great to you, and it can be incredibly cruel. Right now, we’re going through the cruel part.”
Now the Blue Devils stare down the barrel of three games on the road, unsure when Jefferson might return, having learned so painfully that sometimes giving everything they have still won’t be enough. They knew something like this was coming. They don’t know when it might come to an end.
Luke DeCock: 919-928-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock