Duke finds itself a different team, and not in a good way, without Tre Jones

Somber Coach K speaks about upset loss to Syracuse

Tre Jones injured and a sick Cam Reddish lead to overtime loss by the number 1 ranked Blue Devils to the Orange of Syracuse
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Tre Jones injured and a sick Cam Reddish lead to overtime loss by the number 1 ranked Blue Devils to the Orange of Syracuse

Any concern that Duke might have to play without Zion Williamson became old news fast on Monday night.

The hulking Williamson has a strong case as the nation’s best college basketball player and the vision issue that sidelined him for the second half of Saturday’s 80-78 win at Florida State was certainly cause for concern until he was back in the starting lineup against Syracuse.

Anyone who has watched the No.1 Blue Devils this year, though, knows Duke’s most indispensable player is Tre Jones.

When the freshman point guard writhed in pain on the court not even seven minutes into Duke’s 95-91 overtime loss to unranked Orange, the Blue Devils instantly changed.

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Jones hit the court after battling with Syracuse’s Frank Howard for a loose ball. Jones was credited with his fourth steal of the game on the play but he suffered a separated right shoulder while achieving it.

A tough-as-nails player who was on the court for all 40 minutes two days earlier at Florida State, Jones keys Duke’s defense which is among the nation’s stingiest. He directs an offense that’s as potent as Duke’s defense is impenetrable.

“We’re a different team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Obviously, we’re a different team.”

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With Jones, Duke (14-2) scored the game’s first 12 points and appeared ready to run the Orange out of the gym.

Jones only scores 8.1 points per game but that’s far from determining the value he brings to the Blue Devils. He leads Duke with 33 steals. He has 91 assists and just 16 turnovers in 16 games. He’s played 29.3 minutes per game, second-most for Duke behind RJ Barrett.

Duke took a school-record 43 3-point shots against Syracuse, making only nine. Yes, open 3-pointers are available against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. But that was also a testament to Duke trying to find any kind of rhythm on offense with Jones and fellow freshman starter Cam Reddish (flu-like symptoms) sidelined.

“I didn’t think we handled it as well as I would’ve wanted in the first half,” Krzyzewski said. “In the second half, we fought like crazy. We missed so many open shots, but we fought like crazy. And it’d be open, and ugh. Ugh.”

Duke has plenty of talent to keep winning games against many teams on their schedule. Williamson’s 35 points and 10 rebounds, along with Barrett’s 23 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists, show the Blue Devils have plenty of firepower.

Though Krzyzewski wasn’t yet in the mood to think about life without Jones immediately after losing to Syracuse, he also allowed that his point guard figures to be “out for a while.”

It brings the Blue Devils back to August when they took a tour of Canada and easily won three exhibition games against Canadian college teams. Jones missed the games with a hip injury while Reddish sat out due to a groin injury.

So having them out against Syracuse wasn’t totally foreign. That doesn’t mean it was fun.

“When you have two guys get hurt and injured, there is no game plan anymore,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s a period of adjustment and adaptability throughout, so you’re trying to figure out ways to win.”

The nature of their current ailments indicate that Reddish will be back long before Jones.

In the meantime, Barrett, as evidenced by his nine assists against Syracuse, is capable of handling ball-handling duties for Duke.

Reddish figures to get chances to show his play-making skills, too. Sophomore Alex O’Connell should see his playing time increase, too. He had 16 points with three assists and two steals, although his three turnovers are something he’ll need to cut back on.

The Blue Devils will take Tuesday off before resuming practice Wednesday. Unbeaten Virginia, last year’s ACC champion, comes to Cameron on Saturday.

The season rolls on, leaving little time to digest adversity or think about what might have been.

“This was a very difficult night for our basketball program and our team,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ll figure out ways of handling it.”

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.