After a season-ending foot injury last year, Amile Jefferson was most frustrated by his inability to physically provide for the team.
He knew he could have elevated Duke’s defense, helped out on the glass, been a vocal leader. Duke is 33-3 when Jefferson leads the team in rebounding, and the fifth-year forward is averaging a team-best 10.1 boards a game.
When Jefferson suffered a bruised bone this past Saturday in the same foot he broke in practice last season, his expression indicated worry. The Duke captain appeared more disappointed than discomforted after having his right foot examined on the bench in the first half, pursing his lips in frustration.
Maybe he just hid it well.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“I was frustrated missing those games last year,” said Jefferson at the ACC Media Day in Charlotte on Oct. 26. “I felt like we needed things … things I knew that I could do.”
So when No. 7 Duke traveled to Tallahassee to play No. 9 Florida State Tuesday for the first of two extremely tough and revealing conference road games, the Blue Devils missed Jefferson’s presence perhaps more than expected.
Florida State dominated Duke inside for an 88-72 victory at a raucous Donald L. Tucker Center, the Seminoles’ first win over the Blue Devils (14-3, 2-2 ACC) in five years. Florida State (16-1) improved to 4-0 in the ACC for the first time, scoring 56 points in the paint along the way.
Of the Seminoles’ 28 paint baskets, 16 were layups. They also hit eight dunks, three tips and a jumper in that area.
Jefferson’s last foot injury never healed enough for him to return, leaving Duke exposed on the interior. Duke subsequently went 25-11, its most losses in a season since 2006-07.
Duke was beat on the boards, committed too many untimely turnovers and rim protection was often a rarity against the big, long and fast Seminoles, the guys who made you pay in transition. Florida State scored 13 fast break points and cashed in 19 off of second chances. Duke didn’t secure its first offensive rebound until there were a little more than three minutes left in the first half.
They were a good team. Extremely long and athletic, and with Amile being out, that hurt us a lot.
While the surging Seminoles claimed a fast start that left Duke stumbling, the 6-9, 224-pound Jefferson sat on the bench, a boot hugging his right foot, as the Blue Devils dropped their second ACC game.
“They were a good team. Extremely long and athletic, and with Amile being out, that hurt us a lot,” said 6-8, 205-pound freshman forward Jayson Tatum, who wound up with 21 points and four rebounds, filling in at center for a couple of possessions in the second half as Duke searched in vain for answers. Sophomore guard Luke Kennard (6-6, 202 pounds) led the game with 23 points.
“Everybody just has to play bigger,” Tatum said. “Everybody has to rebound more and get inside more to help the big men.”
Without Jefferson, freshman forward Harry Giles and sophomore forward-center Chase Jeter were primarily responsible inside. Freshman big man Marques Bolden (6-11, 245 pounds) appeared for four minutes before sitting the entire second half, while Giles (6-10, 240 pounds), after notable improvement against Georgia Tech and Boston College last week, managed only five points and two rebounds in 10 minutes. Giles and Jeter picked up two early fouls apiece.
Jeter, appearing in his first game since the ACC opener (back), played a solid 25 minutes. He finished with a team-high six rebounds, matching freshman guard Frank Jackson, and two blocks, Duke’s only pair on the night. His single point was Duke’s first off the bench, one that averaged 17.6 bench points upon facing a deep Florida State.
To overwhelm Duke, the Seminoles used a 12-man rotation that included 7-1, 304-pound grad student center Michael Ojo, who gave FSU a momentum boost early; 6-4, 208-pound junior guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who scored 18 of his team-best 21 points in the second half; and sizzling sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon (6-7, 221 pounds), who dished a game-high five of the Seminoles’ 15 assists. FSU’s senior forward Jarquez Smith (6-9, 236 pounds) came off the bench to lead the game with three blocks.
Duke managed its first lead at the 9:35 mark of the first half, one quickly reclaimed by the home team.
Florida State overwhelmed Duke in too many facets. The Blue Devils paid for it sans Jefferson, who shoots an ACC-best 63 percent from the field.
“They played hard. It was going to be a tough matchup, and it was a tough matchup without Amile,” said Jeff Capel, who’s acting head coach while Mike Krzyzewski recovers from lower-back surgery. “Look, Amile has been one of the best players in the country and has been efficient. I’ve said it over and over, his numbers don’t tell the story of what he means to us and his number are off-the-charts good.”
Duke has yet to determine when Jefferson will be able to return. Despite Tuesday night’s results, Capel remains confident the Blue Devils have a better chance of playing well without Jefferson than they did last season.
“We have enough in that locker room to get it done and we didn’t do it,” Capel said. “Everyone. Everyone. All of us -- staff, players -- we all have to step up and we have to be better. And we will.”
Last February, Jefferson was progressing well toward a return in the middle of that month before nagging pain prevented him from playing at 100 percent. He had the option of taking a redshirt year to play this season, so he shut down his efforts to return.
This season, Jefferson doesn’t have that option, which means a different approach. He’s being reevaluated before his availability to return for Saturday’s game at Louisville is determined.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
Steve Wiseman, 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC