College coaches inevitably face the same dilemma, with no easy way to replace what a team is missing.
“You look at Duke without Jefferson, you said they need that one guy,” observed Jim Boeheim. The Hall of Famer’s Syracuse club had just won at Duke for the first time ever, with forward Tyler Roberson grabbing 20 rebounds, the most by a visiting player in nearly 1,000 games at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “It would be the same if we lost Roberson. It would be impossible to get where you want to go. You need that one more guy. He would make all the difference in the world.”
Before visiting Durham, Boeheim and staff doubtless watched video of the Blue Devils in action. They’d seen how the defending national champs performed without injured Amile Jefferson, their sole returning starter from last season, how Mike Krzyzewski and crew tried to compensate, the perpetual struggle to accent strengths and mask weaknesses intensified by the senior’s absence.
In so highly competitive a business, you pounce where you can. Duke was not outrebounded in nine games with Jefferson active; since he was sidelined with a broken right foot, the Devils enjoyed a rebound advantage in fewer than half their contests.
The lithe, 6-9 Jefferson was enjoying his best season, having successfully made the old-fashioned progression from overmatched prospect to solid contributor to indispensable starter over a four-year career. Through mid-December, the Philadelphian paced the ACC and was among leaders nationally with 4.8 offensive rebounds per game.
Among those making at least 200 shots, Jefferson ranked second in Duke history in career field goal accuracy (.620) – significantly better than his .544 career free-throw percentage. He averaged a double-double in points (11.4) and rebounds (10.3) this season, both personal bests, and topped the club in rebounding in eight of nine outings. His eight assists in a win over Indiana were the most this year by a Blue Devil, accenting a performance Krzyzewski called “sensational.”
We got who we’ve got. We’ve got to figure it out.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried on dealing with injuries
With Jefferson, Duke was a formidable if freshman-dependent team rounding into shape for yet another NCAA berth, and more. Without Jefferson, inconsistency increased, inside scoring dwindled and giving up offensive boards became a particular failing. To compensate, Krzyzewski alternated between admonition and exhortation, urging a six-man rotation dominated by perimeter-oriented players to execute a simple maneuver: grab rebounds and hold onto the ball.
A short bench
Seven-foot center Marshall Plumlee has done yeoman’s work in the post. Seven games into the ACC season, the grad student and pending Army officer, a fan of American World War II Gen. George Patton, averages a career-high 8.0 rebounds per game, 9.3 in league play. No pair has a better rebound average in ACC action – all played without Jefferson – than the unexpectedly effective Plumlee and 6-9 freshman Brandon Ingram (16.8 combined).
Yet a program built on tough man-to-man defense ranks 14th in the ACC in defensive rebounding average, a key measure of a team’s ability to limit opponents’ scoring chances.
Struggling N.C. State finds itself facing similar personnel limitations, handicapped by a short bench, a majority of its regulars inconsistent underclassmen, and a key player seriously injured for the first time in coach Mark Gottfried’s five-year tenure.
Wing Terry Henderson played seven minutes in the season opener, a loss to William & Mary, hurt his right ankle, and has been out indefinitely. The 6-5 West Virginia transfer’s size, shooting ability, and experience would presumably be a major asset for one of the conference’s least accurate squads from the floor (.429) and 3-point range (.327). Without Henderson, the Wolfpack opened the ACC season with five losses, the program’s longest winless streak under Gottfried and the most protracted run of defeats at N.C. State since 2010.
“It is what it is,” Gottfried said of his roster after a home defeat against FSU earlier this month. “This ain’t the NBA. I can’t sign guys to 10-day contracts. We got who we got. It is what it is. A number of teams around the country are a little bit short with injuries. It’s not going to be something that we use as an excuse. It’s not a crutch. It’s part of life. We got who we’ve got. We’ve got to figure it out. That’s how I look at it, that’s the way our team is going to approach it.”
N.C. State’s protracted slump all but sunk prospects for a fifth straight NCAA bid, which would match a school record. Losing to Duke on Saturday only made matters worse. Meanwhile, after losing three in a row against conference opponents Clemson, Notre Dame and Syracuse, the last two at home, the Blue Devils seemed in considerable distress before beating the 11-9 Wolfpack.
The skid by Duke was national news, a shocking departure for a program seeking its 21st straight NCAA invitation. The last time a Krzyzewski team lost so many in a row was 2007. Every other ACC program suffered a comparable slide during the past two seasons except Virginia and second-year member Louisville.
Three times during the past eight seasons (2010, 2011, 2013), the Devils did not even lose two straight. Prior to 2007, Duke hadn’t endured a three-game losing streak since 1996.
Recalibrating has previously served Krzyzewski well in difficult, fluid circumstances. Perhaps his best coaching job came in 2001, when Duke compensated for a late-February injury to big man Carlos Boozer and ran off 10 consecutive victories en route to an NCAA title.
Just last season, Grayson Allen, this year’s scoring leader, played sporadically while a trio of fellow freshmen started. All three went on to be NBA first-rounders. Allen played 21 or more minutes in only three games. But two came in March, when he was a difference-maker in a Duke rally against Wisconsin in the NCAA championship contest.
The ’15 Blue Devils also were in danger of losing three straight games, their defense shredded by guards from N.C. State and Miami, when they traveled to Louisville last January. But Krzyzewski conjured a surprising victory with liberal use of an atypical zone defense. On Saturday, another young Duke squad, struggling to avoid foul trouble and to control dribble penetration, sprinkled in zone alignments to handle N.C. State and go to 15-5 heading into Monday night night’s game against Miami.
Krzyzewski has other options he chooses not to use. He turned briefly to 6-9 sophomore Sean Obi, a raw bench-warmer, for interior assistance against the Wolfpack. Obi appeared for a minute, as well as a minute in each half against Syracuse. Freshman Chase Jeter, a 6-10 McDonald’s All-American from Nevada, remained shelved.
Duke’s on-the-fly adjustments echo those faced by the ACC’s previous defending NCAA champ. Back in 2010, North Carolina stumbled mightily after replacing four NBA draft choices. Despite plenty of top-caliber talent, injuries and inexperience proved costly as the Tar Heels dropped four in a row and 10 of 12. The key blows were losing big man Tyler Zeller to a stress fracture for 10 ACC games and 6-10 starter Ed Davis for the final 14 outings after breaking his wrist in a loss to Duke.
Coach Roy Williams agonized publicly over arresting the swoon as UNC scrambled to make the NIT. “It’s hard to prepare for, and it’s hard to talk about it, because people do think it’s an excuse,” Williams recalls about confronting injuries. “And yet it’s college basketball – that’s what it is.”