After Duke’s loss to North Carolina on Saturday, Grayson Allen sat in a chair in front of his locker. He had played all but the final two seconds of the game, hoisting up a game-high 28 shots from the field (making 11) and dishing out five assists, also a game high.
With his jersey stiff with dried sweat, Allen was asked how he had the energy to do it all.
“I mean, I’m a 20-year-old playing against UNC in Cameron, so I’m going to have enough energy to play 40 minutes,” the sophomore guard said. “And if it went into overtime, however many minutes, I was going to be able to play.”
That’s what Duke, with its six-player rotation, has to do heading into the ACC and NCAA tournaments: stubbornly refuse to give in to fatigue.
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Make no mistake, the Blue Devils are definitely more worn down now than they were in January. Three straight games of shooting under 40 percent from the field, and a month of below average shooting in general, are a clear indicator of tired arms and legs.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has acknowledged since the 80-65 win over Florida State on Feb. 25 – the beginning of a sub-40 percent shooting streak – that the Blue Devils are physically and emotionally fatigued.
“We’ve got to get rested,” Krzyzewski said after the 76-72 loss to the Tar Heels. “We don’t have anybody to replace those guys, so we have to figure out a regimen of toughness without physicality.”
Ever since Amile Jefferson broke his foot in a Dec. 12 practice, the Blue Devils have been walking a tightrope in terms of depth. Duke has five scholarship guards – Allen, Derryck Thornton, Luke Kennard, Matt Jones and Brandon Ingram – to rotate into its four guards and one post player lineup.
Senior Marshall Plumlee is the only post player the coaching staff feels comfortable playing for extended stretches of time, though Chase Jeter has filled in more during foul trouble situations of late, averaging 10 minutes over the past five games. Duke announced Saturday that Jefferson won’t return this season. There are only two other scholarship players on the bench, forwards Antonio Vrankovic and Sean Obi, neither of whom has the athleticism required to compete at the ACC level.
“We have some big guys, but they’re not ready,” Krzyzewski said when talking about the options behind Plumlee.
Of all the 36 years Krzyzewski has coached at Duke, this is the tightest depth has ever been, he said. The only other year that compares was 1995-96, Krzyzewski’s first year back after missing half a year with his back injury. Stan Brunson, who came to Duke as a soccer player, averaged 9.1 minutes per game as an emergency fix at center that season.
“This year, with youth, numbers, injury, it’s probably our most unusual year,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve really enjoyed this group, because it’s been a situation I really haven’t been in before, and they’ve responded very well.”
Krzyzewski’s rotation typically doesn’t extend beyond seven or eight players regardless of any circumstance. His 2001 team rode its six-man rotation all the way to the national championship. Of course, no one will confuse anyone on this team for the players on that team, which included Jay Williams, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy, Nate James, Carlos Boozer and Chris Duhon.
But Ingram, Allen, Thornton, Kennard, Jones and Plumlee are what Duke has, and Krzyzewski has ridden them to 22 wins, the No. 5 seed in the ACC tournament and a secure spot in the NCAA tournament field.
“Who are we going to sub? That’s it, man,” Krzyzewski said after Duke defeated UNC 74-73 on Feb. 17 while playing just five players in the second half after Jones sprained his ankle early in the game.
All of the six Blue Devils know how vital they are to the team’s success. And a certain toughness has developed because of that.
“Whenever I have bumps or bruises, Matt (Jones) will catch me rubbing my knee or my ankle and will look at me and say, ‘Marshall, suck it up, suck it up right now,’ ” Plumlee said. “It’s kind of a collective toughness that we’ve built.”
That toughness will have to carry Duke in the postseason. How far the ride will go, nobody knows. And Krzyzewski isn’t about to predict what his six-man band can and can’t do.
Krzyzewski was asked Saturday if it’s possible for his team to play four games in four days during the ACC tournament – starting Wednesday and making it all the way to Saturday’s championship game.
“Let’s just play the first game,” he said. “In the military, one of the expressions they have, a need-to-know basis, and we don’t need to know that. Let’s just figure out what we need to know about Wednesday’s game.”