Duke fell from first to sixth in the AP top 25 after a loss to Kansas in the Champions Classic, a fair assessment of where the short-handed Blue Devils are at this moment. And yet their preseason No. 1 rankings still feels entirely valid: the Blue Devils looked like the best team in the country coming into the season and may, probably should, be again.
It’s just so hard to tell what the Blue Devils actually are when Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden have yet to play a game and Grayson Allen and Chase Jeter had to battle through injuries over the weekend in wins over Penn State and Rhode Island, leading to some unexpected playing time for Javin DeLaurier and Antonio Vrankovic.
(This seems to be an epidemic at Duke, where three of the Blue Devils’ football captains were lost for the season before the calendar turned to November.)
Duke is back home to host William & Mary on Wednesday, and while everyone figured Mike Krzyzewski would get his rotation whittled down to six or seven guys at some point, no one expected that point to be Thanksgiving. For now, the Blue Devils seem perfectly capable of winning games with the veteran starters playing 35-40 minutes, and while that’s probably not sustainable forever, it should get them through the next week.
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By the time Michigan State plays the Blue Devils in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Jeter may be healed up and one of the three missing freshmen – most likely Tatum – could be available. The Duke team that hosts the Spartans may look a little more like Duke was, and is, expected to look.
Everyone in the Triangle is playing shorthanded to some degree. North Carolina has adjusted to the absence of Theo Pinson with a broken foot suffered before the season, and the Tar Heels have the talent to paper over the gaps, but they’ll be better off when he returns somewhere in the next month or two if all goes well.
In Pinson’s absence, Nate Britt and Kenny Williams have alternated starting spots, with the veteran Britt coming off the bench as a stabilizing force and Williams – who played very little as a freshman – showing an unexpected versatility to his game. But Pinson’s length gives the Tar Heels the option of going small, and North Carolina has been deprived of one of its best tactics a year ago.
N.C. State has only one injury of note – not counting Lennard Freeman, who is redshirting – but it came at a terrible time. Maverick Rowan’s concussion wouldn’t normally be a huge issue if the Wolfpack hadn’t already been missing Omer Yurtseven (NCAA suspension) and Ted Kapita (immigration issues) in the Virgin Islands.
That left the Wolfpack relying heavily on reserves Darius Hicks and Shaun Kirk in St. Thomas with somewhat predictable results, scraping past Montana and giving up triple digits in a loss to Creighton before rebounding with a nice win over St. Joseph’s. Conversely, Rowan’s unavailability may have opened up some minutes for freshman guard Markell Johnson, who made the most of them.
N.C. State may not have the same injury issues as Duke, but the Wolfpack has the same sense of being somewhat less than the sum of its parts because so many parts are missing. The Wolfpack knew it was going to have to wait a while to become the team it was supposed to be as Yurtseven served his nine-game suspension, then got a boost when Kapita was cleared to join the team after one game, then ended up missing all three this week.
The Wolfpack will get Kapita back for Saturday’s game against Loyola and Yurtseven back against Appalachian State on Dec. 15. N.C. State has that advantage over Duke, which can’t approach its injuries with that degree of certainty right now.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock