Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t in a bad mood after Duke beat Georgia Southern 99-65, but he didn’t mince words when discussing the challenges facing the Blue Devils. Those have nothing to do with anything that happened in the game, but rather everything to do with the player—Amile Jefferson—who won’t play for an indefinite amount of time.
Jefferson, Duke’s leading rebounder, has a fracture in his right foot and is out indefinitely. Without Jefferson, Duke has six players that will play the majority of the available minutes and a seventh, Chase Jeter, who isn’t ready but will have to help out in a pinch.
“Look, it’s a huge period of adjustment for us. We don’t lose Amile and go, OK, everything is good,” Krzyzewski said. “We have to keep the ship afloat, man, while he’s gone. We don’t have many guys.”
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Most telling about the severity of the situation was Krzyzewski’s reaction to a question suggesting that this year’s numbers challenge (with seven available useful players) is similar to last year, when Duke won the national title with eight scholarship players. Krzyzewski quickly cut off the question.
“We were never in this situation. Not even close,” Krzyzewski said, dismissing the comparison. “Not even close because we had more experience. And we had (Jahlil) Okafor. And then we had (Justise) Winslow, and we had guards. We had eight good players.”
Half of Duke’s team last year—Okafor, Winslow, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook—has seen time in the NBA this season. This year, Duke has two guys at most (Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram) who might be pros at this time next year, and neither will have the impact of an Okafor or a Winslow, that’s for sure.
Jefferson broke his foot diving for a loose ball in practice. So, going forward, Duke won’t have any contact in practices, because losing one more player would toast this team to the point where the NCAA Tournament would be in question. The challenge will be staying well conditioned without having tired legs.
Georgia Southern, with its four guards and 6-foot-5 “power forward,” wasn’t in a position to challenge Duke where most ACC teams will: with size inside. Brandon Ingram moves to a stretch 4 role, and 6-foot-5 Matt Jones is his backup. Ingram posted his first career double-double against the Eagles, with 26 points and 14 rebounds. Ingram looks nothing like the player he was when the season began, as his increase in confidence is visible. He started the second half with a steal near the top of the key on defense, dropped a crossover dribble in transition followed by a step-over and one-handed slam through a foul. He was visibly fired up afterward, a stark change from the loafing he did on the court a month ago.
“Hell, if he did that every game, we’d have a better chance, let’s put it that way,” Krzyzewski said of Ingram’s double-double.
Jefferson was among the best offensive rebounders in the country, and Duke will miss that. The Blue Devils are also much more vulnerable on defense in general without him—Ingram’s lean frame isn’t designed to bang in the post against bigger opponents, and neither is Jones’s. And Jeter, the only other post player good enough to possibly see the floor, played just six first-half minutes after a disastrous initial stretch that lasted less than two minutes. In that span, he lost the ball on an inbounds play, bricked a lay-up, missed an ally-oop, lost his man on defense and then fell down in the paint. It was not pretty.
“He just turned 18 years old in September,” Krzyzewski said of Jeter. “I don’t think I need to say any more. He’s 18 years old. That’s a lot of youth. Think back to when you were 18.”
Still, though, Krzyzewski said the play of Jeter won’t be a key to getting through this time without Jefferson.
“The key is keeping our really good players on the court, fresh and out of foul trouble,” he said.
Jefferson’s right foot will be in a hard cast until he returns from Duke’s holiday break on Dec. 26. At that point, he will be re-evaluated, though the Blue Devils aren’t expecting him back around that time. His injury doesn’t require surgery, which is good. But there is no timetable for his return.
“Tune in for the next episode,” Krzyzewski said, with a light air that comes from speaking honestly. “We can start a series right now of ‘what the hell is happening with the Blue Devils.’ ”