With or without Grayson Allen, Jeff Capel said his next few weeks would have been no sweat – only opportunity.
The Duke assistant will act as head coach while Mike Krzyzewski recovers from lower-back surgery, which could take up to four weeks. Krzyzewski goes under the knife for the fifth time in nine months Friday. Before he exited, though, he reinstated Allen, who was suspended indefinitely for intentionally tripping an Elon player on Dec. 21.
Allen’s return, Capel said, provided a big boost.
“Obviously, having Grayson back is big for us,” said Capel, a former Duke guard who’s been with the staff six years. “Grayson’s one of the best players in college basketball. He’s healthy now, and he’s coming off one of his best games of the season. It makes our team different. You have a guy that has that kind of experience, that talent. He has a toughness about him; he’s a competitor.”
Allen was back in the starting lineup as point guard and dished four assists before trying a basket. He finished with seven assists, adding 15 points as one of seven Blue Devils to finish in double figures in Duke’s 110-57 victory over Georgia Tech Wednesday.
Capel said he would have made the most of an opportunity to coach Duke even if Allen hadn’t returned.
Allen’s one-game suspension was up to Krzyzewski after consulting with Duke athletic director Kevin White.
Capel, who’s already been given a lot of freedom as an assistant, will coach his first game in Krzyzewski’s place in Saturday’s home contest against Boston College. The assistant from Fayetteville led Duke to a victory over Georgia Tech last season when Krzyzewski missed a game due to illness.
Krzyzewski said he actually postponed his back surgery to work Allen into a groove; the Blue Devils opened ACC play against Virginia Tech without the star junior and fell by double digits. Krzyzewski wanted to push Duke in a direction closer to being absolutely complete, which included Harry Giles as the starting center Wednesday.
“I think it’s appropriate what we’ve done,” Krzyzewski said about Allen’s brief suspension. “There are things behind the scenes that we’re doing.”
Allen was also stripped of his captaincy but said he’d try to remain vocal and a leader without the title.
Capel is coming in at a time that – until a massive win over the Jackets – seemed tumultuous. Duke (13-2, 1-1 ACC) was recovering from unexpected injuries, blending in players returning from injury and then dealt with the suspension of its second-leading scorer and best passer. The recipe caused a disconnect that left the Blue Devils with a stretch of sub-par contests: They shot a season-low 28 percent in the first half against Tennessee State, they were awfully distracted against Elon and they lacked offensive power upon facing a unified Hokies group.
“There’s no set time (for a team to jell),” Krzyzewski said after losing to Virginia Tech. “It can be one play.”
But just in time for Capel, Duke appears to be on track. It’s essentially built the eight-man rotation it’s longed for since October – when both Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden suffered injuries. Allen and Tatum were starters Thursday alongside guard Luke Kennard and forwards Giles and Amile Jefferson. Frank Jackson and Matt Jones served as perimeter substitutions, and Bolden was the post sub.
Capel said the 100-point effort Wednesday came from a team that looked nearly full strength.
“We still feel like we have a very large ceiling,” he said. “We’re still figuring out who we are.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan