Jeff Capel has some big shoes to fill.
Not only because the Duke assistant is taking over for Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski during his leave of absence that starts Friday, but because Capel is stepping in during a tumultuous time for the program.
Junior guard Grayson Allen is still suspended indefinitely, and Krzyzewski hasn’t said when Duke’s second-leading scorer will be back on the court. No. 8 Duke (12-2) hosts Georgia Tech (9-4) Wednesday and Boston College Saturday – the first game without Krzyzewski, who will have lower-back surgery to remove a fragment of a herniated disc – before facing No. 9 Louisville and No. 12 Florida State, two tough matchups on the road.
Freshman forward Harry Giles, who looked his best yet against Virginia Tech this past Saturday, is still trying to settle in after playing competitive basketball for the first time in 13 months on Dec. 19.
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Five of Duke’s six freshmen have been injured, and while forward Jayson Tatum (15.8 points, 7.5 rebounds) is emerging quickly, forward Javin DeLaurier (2.1 points, 2.9 rebounds) was last seen with a boot around his foot. Duke has rarely been able to practice with its complete group.
Facing the Hokies was the first true road game for the top-ranked Duke freshmen, and the spotlight was on guard Frank Jackson (11.8 points, 2.1 rebounds), who was reinserted into the starting lineup in place of Allen, who was also relieved of his team captain title after tripping Elon’s Steven Santa Ana on December 21.
Jackson, who entered the Virginia Tech game averaging 13.5 points with five starts under his belt, scored six and picked up four fouls in 24 minutes. It’s the lowest the rookie has scored when playing at least 21 minutes. He finished in double digits the first eight games of the season, starts included. He hasn’t had more than nine points since he rested as Duke played Maine on Dec. 3.
“We have to come together and step up,” Jackson said after the loss to Virginia Tech, who’s now ranked No. 21. “When you have the letters ‘DUKE’ across your chest, people are going to come at you and give you their best shot every game.”
That’s just it. The road doesn’t get easier for the ACC preseason favorite, and Krzyzewski admitted Duke hasn’t played well in three straight games (Virginia Tech, Elon and Tennessee State).
The league boasts seven ranked teams for the first time since December 2005. (Virginia (12th), North Carolina (16th) and Notre Dame (23rd) round them off. Florida State and Virginia Tech still only have one loss each.
Georgia Tech upset North Carolina in Saturday’s ACC opener for both teams, beating the Tar Heels by double digits. Boston College’s starting backcourt Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson averaged 47.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists while shooting 64 percent from the floor and 66 from deep over the last three games.
Capel, previously the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma, coached the Blue Devils’ game at Georgia Tech last season when Krzyzewski missed the trip due to illness. Switching to man-to-man, something Duke hadn’t practiced for going into that game, against the Yellow Jackets proved to be the difference.
Krzyzewski will be 70 on Feb. 13. During the 1994-95 season, he only coached 12 games. He had back surgery in October 1994 and missed 10 days of practice but complained of tiredness in January 1995, and he was hospitalized four days. Assistant Pete Gaudet became the interim head coach. That season ended an 11-year NCAA tournament streak for the Blue Devils. Aside from Krzyzewski’s first three years at Duke, it was the only season in his 37-year tenure at the school that his team didn’t make the tournament.
How Capel fares during Krzyzewski’s recovery, which could be up to four weeks, will count toward Krzyzewski’s record. Krzyzewski owns an NCAA men’s-best 1,055 wins.
“We haven’t played well for three straight games, and it’s disconcerting,” Krzyzewski said after the Virginia Tech loss.
Georgia Tech at Duke
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham