Duke is vulnerable without forward Amile Jefferson – not even Mike Krzyzewski is trying to pretend otherwise. The Blue Devils’ coach even pointed out Duke’s obvious weaknesses at his last press conference.
“There are too many coaches and too many good teams not to look and go, we need to attack them here, here and here,” Krzyzewski said. “And we don’t have many heres, so they are going to attack Brandon (Ingram), they’re going to try to take Grayson (Allen) out of the game. They’re going to do those things. We have to stay fresh, and we have to keep them in the game as long as possible.”
Utah (8-2) will be able to challenge Duke where the Blue Devils are weakest defensively. Seven-foot big man Jakob Poeltl is averaging 19.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and is shooting almost 70 percent from the floor. He is expected to be a lottery pick in next spring’s NBA Draft. If the Utes can get Poeltl matched up on 6-foot-9 Brandon Ingram, Duke’s new stretch 4 (traditionally the power forward position), the skinny freshman will be at a significant size disadvantage, leaving him susceptible to picking up fouls.
“Especially on the defensive end, just staying in front of guys and knowing that people have your back and trusting the help side,” Ingram said when asked what he needs to do defensively with Jefferson out.
One of Jefferson’s underrated skills was his ability to switch off of ball screens and guard against every position, from guards to big men. Ingram will struggle with bigger opponents. Of course, should this prove to be an issue, Duke does have another option: playing zone defense.
The Blue Devils used a 1-3-1 extensively against Georgetown and Yale, and they’ve debuted a 2-3 zone at times, too. The advantage to a zone defense is that it reduces the possibility of mismatches that will lead to fouls. Given the depth situation, having one of Duke’s six rotation players get in foul trouble would be disastrous.
Something else that needs to help out Duke’s defense is its offense.
“We can score,” Krzyzewski said. “And the two things that can stop you from scoring, besides the other team, are having tired legs and being in foul trouble, not being in the game. So we have to think of ways for us to stay out of foul trouble and to have fresh legs.”
Duke needs for Ingram to continue to produce at his recently elevated level. The freshman is averaging 24.3 points and 9.3 rebounds over the Blue Devils’ last three games (Georgia Southern, Buffalo and Indiana). Last time out against Georgia Southern, Ingram collected a career-high 14 rebounds, with eight coming on the offensive end.
“That’s part of the game, rebounding,” Matt Jones said. “Coach has confidence in us, both on and off the court and on both ends on the court. We just have to shoot the ball with conviction. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Missing fewer shots would lead to fewer offensive rebounding opportunities, as Jones alluded to in his comments. So far this year, Utah has struggled on the defensive end, and the Utes have been blown out by the two decent teams they have played (90-66 against Miami and 67-50 versus Wichita State). Ingram and Grayson Allen have been Duke’s best scoring options, and don’t expect that to change.
Allen, though, could find his route to the basket getting tougher. Against Georgia Southern, he was hit hard twice, with one of the blows causing some nasty swelling around his right eye. The Blue Devils can absolutely not afford to lose Allen for any length of time – he’ll need all the added strength he gained in the offseason.
“Grayson is such a powerful player,” Krzyzewski said. “And you’re that away from not having another guy. We’ve got slim pickings right now. We’ve got to be really careful. How we play defense will be a key, so we can keep our guys fresh and out of foul trouble. We don’t have that plan yet.”
It’s all a work in progress for Duke. And Utah will provide a worthy test.