Duke’s reality without Amile Jefferson inherently frustrating

Duke’s Amile Jefferson, center, sits on the bench with an injured foot against Georgia Southern. Jefferson, who was averaging a double-double, is out indefinitely.
Duke’s Amile Jefferson, center, sits on the bench with an injured foot against Georgia Southern. Jefferson, who was averaging a double-double, is out indefinitely. AP

The frustration in Mike Krzyzewski’s voice bubbled up a few times in his postgame press conference after Duke’s 77-75 overtime loss to Utah. He wasn’t frustrated with his players – far from it. He was frustrated by how few of them he has.

“There are only so many lifeboats on the ship,” he said when asked about Duke’s ability to hold up with a skinny 6-foot-9, 190 pound Brandon Ingram as the de facto “post” player. “You don’t have a choice. So, what would be your suggestion as an alternative life boat?”

If basketball was played with four wing players, Duke would be set. Ingram, Grayson Allen (when he doesn’t have the flu like he did Saturday against Utah), Luke Kennard and Matt Jones make up a nice quartet that blends talent and experience.

But best practice dictates that basketball teams have a point guard and at least one post player and depth at every position. The Blue Devils have a young point guard who’s prone to uneven performances – Derryck Thornton was 2-for-13 from the floor – and just one post player, period.

And when Marshall Plumlee picked up his third and fourth fouls with more than 16 minutes remaining in regulation, the Blue Devils had no post players for long stretches.

Still, despite the unconventional lineup, the Blue Devils certainly could have won the game. With 30 seconds left in regulation and the score tied at 60, Ingram missed an open 3 from the top of the key. And then with 6.4 seconds left in overtime, down just 77-75, Ingram missed an open layup, as his finger roll finish rolled right off the rim. Add in that Duke shot a season-low 29.9 percent from the floor, and it’s amazing the Blue Devils were in a position to win at all.

They certainly didn’t lose because of anything Utah did. “The biggest challenge was being without Amile (Jefferson),” Ingram said. “We make no excuses, we adjusted to that and played a good game, but shots just weren’t falling.”

And that’s where Krzyzewski’s frustration comes into play.

Jefferson, who was averaging a double-double, is out indefinitely with a fractured right foot, and it’s hard to imagine him being ready before late January at the earliest.

“It’s a position where we have no depth,” Krzyzewski said. “Or no experienced depth.

“God forbid anybody gets hurt, but we have five perimeter guys who are pretty good players. And we had two really good bigs and a developing young big. And Amile has played the best of the bigs. We’re a much different team without him.”

Chase Jeter, a developing young big, played just six minutes Saturday against Utah. He isn’t yet capable of playing and thinking with the speed and physicality high-major basketball requires.

The two other post players on scholarship, Sean Obi and Antonio Vrankovic, are even less capable than Jeter, making it virtually impossible to play them and have any chance at winning.

The Blue Devils picked a bad year to lose half of their team to graduation and the NBA, as the class of 2015 is one of the weaker recruiting classes in recent years.

Jeter was the 11th overall recruit in the class, according to ESPN, and fourth-best center. Even the top-ranked center, Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere, has struggled in the college game.

So that leaves Duke with six rotation players, basically: four wing players, a young point guard and one post player. And there are 200 minutes per game to be split between them.

“What are you going to do?” Krzyzewski said when asked about the inherent difficulties in playing six guys so many minutes. “That’s the way it’s going to be. That’s the way it’s going to be.”

Laura Keeley: 919-829-4556, @laurakeeley

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