With junior guard Matt Jones unable to play with a sprained left ankle, Duke will bring its five-man rotation to Louisville on Saturday. No, it’s not an ideal situation. But it’s not an impossible one, either.
Case in point: Duke’s second-half comeback win at North Carolina. Down 46-42 at halftime, the Blue Devils’ four healthy guards each played all 20 minutes of the second half in Duke’s 74-73 upset win.
“We made a short bench even shorter,” sophomore guard Grayson Allen said. “But we showed ourselves that no matter what our situation is, we can do it on the floor.”
Jones landed awkwardly on his left ankle with about eight minutes left in the first half against UNC, and he left the Smith Center on crutches. X-rays revealed no broken bones, and an MRI confirmed the diagnosis of a sprained left ankle.
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He won’t play Saturday at No. 18 Louisville and there is no timetable for his return.
For the No. 20 Blue Devils, it’s just another test in a season full of them.
“We’re hoping Matt can get back as soon as possible,” freshman guard Luke Kennard said. “And we’ve hit adversity this season, losing in the last couple of seconds in big games earlier in ACC play, and then coming back and winning these big three straight games. It just shows the growth of the team so far and how well we’re really coming together as a group and how tough we can play.”
Duke’s first major trying moment came when senior forward Amile Jefferson broke his ankle in a Dec. 12 practice. That left the Blue Devils with just one viable post player – Marshall Plumlee – and the Blue Devils lost four of five ACC games in January while trying to find their way without Jefferson.
The first three of those losses (at Clemson and at home against Notre Dame and Syracuse) all featured a chance for the Blue Devils to tie or take the lead in the final minute.
That stretch came to an end at Georgia Tech on Feb. 2. Krzyzewski didn’t make the trip due to a sudden health issue, and missed his first game since 1995. Assistant coach Jeff Capel took over for Krzyzewski and led Duke to an 80-71 win. The Blue Devils haven’t lost since then, beating a trio of ranked teams – Louisville, Virginia and UNC– in the process.
Jones’ injury is the latest test. Duke has just four healthy scholarship guards – Allen, Kennard, Derryck Thornton and Brandon Ingram. The numbers crunch is partially because of the unexpected early departures of Tyus Jones and Rasheed Sulaimon. Without them or any other reinforcements, all four expect to play all 40 minutes. That’s Duke’s best option to win, much better than playing a slow big man out of position at the power forward spot.
Fatigue is inevitable. But against the Tar Heels, Duke was able to overcome it.
“We’re a group of fighters,” Thornton said. “We have been through a lot of adversity so far this season, so I feel like we’re just fighting, fighting just to get every win that we can. That’s the main reason we stayed in the game.”
Louisville (20-6, 9-4 ACC) will be another fight for Duke (20-6, 9-4). Expect the Blue Devils to slow down the tempo on offense a bit for the sake of conserving energy. From there, they will play to their strengths, spreading the floor and primarily letting Allen and Ingram make plays.
“That’s coach’s main thing, just be aggressive and make plays,” Thornton said. “He trusts all of our skill sets.”
Kennard is capable of hitting shots, too, and Thornton provides aggressive on-ball defense. All of Duke’s guards, especially Ingram, can rebound on the defensive glass. There’s no glaring weakness for the Blue Devils on the floor – just on the (nonexistent) bench.
Still, the lack of depth didn’t prevent Duke from winning at UNC. And it would be foolish to assume it will automatically lead to losses against anyone else.