Mike Krzyzewski said it in as many ways imaginable: Duke hasn’t jelled.
There have been far too many injuries, returns from injuries and, in his words, interruptions, the latest being the suspension of junior star guard and former team captain Grayson Allen.
After Duke’s 89-75 loss to Virginia Tech Saturday, Krzyzewski announced Allen had been stripped of his captaincy, another result of his intentional tripping of Elon’s Steven Santa Ana in Duke’s nonconference season finale.
Duke (12-2, 0-1 ACC) has played without several pieces this season, including Allen when he sat out for rest against Maine on Dec. 3.
But Saturday wasn’t Maine. Saturday was the ACC opener for both teams, and it marked the most disconnected Duke has looked this year.
The Blue Devils struggled early to create offense without their second-leading scorer, while the deep Hokies (12-1, 1-0) showed why their unity will make them a contender in the league; they got 25 points off the bench, had six players finished in double figures and notched 18 assists.
“You’d rather have our full complement of players, but that’s not an excuse,” Krzyzewski said after Duke finished 42 percent from the floor to Virginia Tech’s 55. Duke shot 39 percent in the first half against a stifling defense. Allen averages 16 points and a team-best 3.5 assists a game; Duke dished eight assists Saturday.
“He should be on the floor if he does the right things, but he didn’t do the right things, so he wasn’t on the floor,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s the way it is.”
Allen traveled to Blacksburg, Va., with the team and sat on the bench in a black Duke zip top, differing from the warmup gear the injured players – Javin DeLaurier (ankle) and Sean Obi (knee) – sported on the sideline pregame.
Krzyzewski didn’t want to reveal when Allen may return to game action but did say “he was part of the loss today by not being here.”
Duke’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Luke Kennard, dropped 34 in the loss, and Jayson Tatum added 18. A second-half 3-pointer from Kennard brought Duke within a manageable 11-point deficit midway through, but Virginia Tech junior Justin Bibbs answered with his own triple, scored off his steal and finished an individual 7-0 run on three straight possessions.
The Blue Devils, who trailed 8-0 within the first few minutes of the game, never recovered from Virginia Tech’s mighty first half or how its defense forced them into several bad shots. Kennard was Duke’s only scorer to finish above 50 percent.
“We just didn’t come out with energy,” said senior guard Matt Jones, who, along with grad student forward Amile Jefferson, represents Duke as team captain. “They came in and hit us in the mouth, and we weren’t able to respond like we should have.”
Jones said Duke’s lack of energy affected it more so than Allen being benched.
You can get better during a break, or you can get worse. And we’ve gotten worse.
Freshman guard Frank Jackson was reinserted into the starting lineup. While he played fair on Nov. 15 against Kansas, one of Duke’s biggest nonconference opponents, the rookie did not have a spectacular ACC debut before a tireless Hokies home crowd that drew 9,567 to Cassell Coliseum. Jackson finished 3-of-9 for six points and picked up four fouls, one of several Duke players to face foul trouble Saturday.
It was the Blue Devils’ fifth starting lineup this season, as nine players, including freshman forward Harry Giles (four points, eight boards), saw game action against the Hokies.
“We would like to have, like (Virginia Tech has), eight guys or so you can count on so that when they’re in, there’s that cohesiveness, there’s that familiarity of playing with one another,” said Krzyzewski, who noted who had been absent for the past three games. “You’ll have to figure that out quick, or else you’re going to get punished in our league. It could take long, and it may not take long. It’s one of those things that is beautiful about the game and team-building. There’s not a book or a recipe. It just hopefully happens for us.
“It needs to happen.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan