After falling to North Carolina in his final regular-season game in a Duke uniform, Amile Jefferson still anticipates great things.
Four games in four days is the least he’s hoping for.
But as Duke closed a turbulent regular season with a 90-83 loss to UNC Saturday, some of the Blue Devils veterans were still a little bumpy.
Jefferson, a graduate student forward, and Grayson Allen, a junior guard, have been playing through injuries.
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“I’m fine,” said Jefferson, who missed two games in January with a bruised bone in his foot. “Not worried about nothing. I’m fine.”
If Duke (23-8) makes it to Saturday’s ACC tournament championship game, four games in four days would be an intense stretch. No team has ever won four games in the ACC tournament. Duke faces Clemson in Wednesday’s second round at 2 p.m.
The veterans will be most important in the season that starts after Saturday; Allen, Jefferson and senior Matt Jones have a combined 29 NCAA tournament games under their belts, including the 2015 national championship.
But it’s Duke’s freshman who appear to be gaining confidence at the right time.
Frank Jackson had replaced Allen in the starting lineup the final three games of the regular season starting at Miami, when Allen sat out with an ankle injury.
In those three games, Jackson shot 60 percent (18-of-30) and averaged 22 points. In the home finale against Florida State on Feb. 28, the 6-3 guard went 5-of-6, including three 3s, to start the second half and move Duke into a double-digit lead before winning 75-50.
Rookie wing Jayson Tatum, an All-ACC third-team selection who also made the freshman team, has been a regular starter since he debuted against Maine on Dec. 3. He’s the second leading scorer behind ACC scoring champion sophomore Luke Kennard (20.1) with 16, becoming more comfortable with the speed of college basketball.
Though rookies Harry Giles and Marques Bolden have been on spot duty, with Giles getting his last start at Miami on Feb. 25, their moments have been significant. Giles, a 6-10 forward, played 13 minutes against UNC, up from his season average of 12. Bolden, the 6-11 center, provides overpowering size inside for the Blue Devils.
With this star freshman class having not yet peaked, Duke’s ceiling is not quite roofed.
“Frank is unbelievably talented and tough,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the FSU game on Feb. 28. “Just the growth of a freshman, and you could see it at Miami. He was just different; he was better. Just like with Jayson. I mean Jayson has been good all year, but you could see in these last games, when we started winning, he was at another level.
“That’s happening with Frank.”
Good freshmen performances have translated into wins this season. In 21 of 23 Duke victories, at least one freshman posted double-digit scoring figures. Eight of those times, a freshman led the team in scoring.
Though Jackson has come off the bench a team-high 12 times, he’s been capable of being a starter all season. He started five consecutive games after sophomore forward Chase Jeter went down to a mid-foot injury in November.
“We have a lot of guys who are continuing to get better,” Allen said after the UNC game. “Frank keeps coming and Amile’s getting healthier and getting back, too. Frank, he’s just competing out there. He’s playing his butt off. That’s been a really big thing for us, especially recently. He’s gaining a lot of confidence and we love it when he plays like that.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
No. 5 Duke vs. No. 12 Clemson
When: 2 p.m. Wednesday
TV: ESPN, WRAL