Before Duke ever played a game this season, it was in the running.
The running to top the ACC. The running to blast through anyone who dared to challenge the team ranked No. 1 in the preseason. The running to contend for another national championship with the help of the best freshman class in the nation.
Things changed quickly, though, for the injury-plagued Blue Devils, who have yet to win a conference game on the road.
Duke (14-4, 2-3 ACC) has put together seven different starting lineups. The Blue Devils only twice featured their desired lineup of junior guard Grayson Allen, sophomore guard Luke Kennard, freshman wing Jayson Tatum, fifth-year forward Amile Jefferson and freshman forward Harry Giles. Duke had to make another alteration after the 6-foot-9, 224-pound Jefferson bruised a bone in his right foot against Boston College, forcing a smaller look by reinserting senior guard Matt Jones, who’s 6-5, 204 pounds, into the lineup.
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Currently ranked No. 18 (its lowest of the season) after dropping back-to-back ACC contests to Florida State and Louisville, the Blue Devils have a lot left to do with 13 regular-season games remaining.
So, what has happened to Duke?
Star freshman Tatum sprained his left foot in practice. The recovery time was supposed to be around two weeks, but Tatum didn’t make his college debut until Dec. 3 against Maine. He’s played 10 games this season, starting in eight. In that time, Tatum is second in points (16.8) and leads the team in blocked shots (1.5). He has been featured in five different starting lineups, Duke going 5-3 when he’s a starter. He’s shot just 55 of Duke’s total shots, a category dominated by Kennard with 124.
Duke announced freshman center Marques Bolden suffered an unspecified lower-leg injury. The news came after Bolden sat out of Duke’s second exhibition game for rest. Bolden missed Duke’s season-opener and debuted, like Tatum, against Maine. One of the top prospects hasn’t been a starter yet. He was supposed to be the post substitution for Giles with Duke’s dream lineup but was third in line behind sophomore forward/center Chase Jeter and freshman forward Javin DeLaurier in Duke’s battle with Louisville on the road. Bolden has really been on spot duty, averaging 1.9 points and 1.3 boards in 10 games. The Blue Devils clearly suffer without their bigs, and Bolden, at 6-11 and 245 pounds, has the size they need to be an interior force. It’s been a tough situation, though, with their lack of continuity; Bolden hasn’t found his stride.
The Blue Devils didn’t pass their first big test of the season, falling 77-75 to Kansas on a last-second shot at Madison Square Garden. Duke faced foul trouble, while Kansas outrebounded the Blue Devils. Duke has collected at least 20 fouls as a team in each of its four losses this season.
Only Jeter and freshman Frank Jackson secured an offensive rebound against Kansas. The Blue Devils rebounded with a Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off championship that same week, but it came at a cost.
Duke’s losses - At least 20 fouls - More turnovers than opponents
A mid-foot injury claimed Jeter’s spot in the starting lineup after he fell six minutes into Duke’s 78-68 win over Penn State during Duke’s Hall of Fame trip. The 6-10, 230-pound sophomore had started the first four games of the season.
His minutes decreased severely following the injury, and he wasn’t reinserted into the starting lineup until Duke played at UNLV on Dec. 10, a homecoming for the Las Vegas native.
In the last few games, he’s played solid defense for a team that can’t afford to lose its post presence without Jefferson.
After Jeter’s injury, Jackson became a starter for the next four games.
Oh, boy. At least Duke made it out of Greensboro with a win over Elon.
For the third time in a calendar year, 6-5, 202-pound junior guard Allen tripped an opponent. The buzz and fury didn’t peak on social media until later that night, when the free social world had access to a slow-motion replay that showed Allen purposely tripping Elon’s Steven Santa Ana in the first half. It was a major distraction for Duke, which wound up trailing at halftime.
Duke handed Allen a one-game suspension and stripped him of his captaincy. Allen’s every step on the court has been examined since then. He’s so far been accused of trying to trip another opponent and shoving a Florida State assistant coach.
Jeff Capel, acting head coach while Mike Krzyzewski recovers from back surgery (don’t worry, we’ll get there), recently said he’s never seen a player as scrutinized as Allen.
Upon Allen’s return as a starting point guard on Jan. 4 against Georgia Tech, he passed out seven assists to one turnover in 27 minutes. He was perfect from the free-throw line and collected 15 points – and no fouls.
With Allen suspended, Duke lost its ACC opener 89-75 to Virginia Tech on Dec. 31.
Duke was 4-0 this season when Allen led the team in scoring. The streak reversed at Louisville, where he scored a team-high 23 as the team fell, 78-69.
Duke announced Coach K would need lower-back surgery to remove a fragment of a herniated disk, the news coming just a couple of days after the loss to Virginia Tech.
Krzyzewski reinstated Allen in the last game before his surgery before Capel took over. Capel coached his first game this season on Jan. 7, a 93-82 win at home against Boston College.
Just when Duke most closely resembled the team it was expected to be (with an unforeseen boost from a hot Luke Kennard), just when all the Blue Devils were able to practice with some familiarity, the team took another hit.
Jefferson came down in the first half against Boston College, bruising a bone in his right foot. He missed the next two games – where Duke allowed a combined 96 points in the paint without their best rebounder.
The combinations of injuries, surgeries and distractions have thwarted Duke’s growth. With six new bodies coming in this year, the Blue Devils haven’t gained familiarity for an extended period of time this year – unless the everlasting adjustments count.
No doubt, Duke’s freshman class was key to its expected success this season. All but one of them have been injured or recovering from an injury at some point this season (Giles had a knee scope to clean it up on Oct. 3). The Blue Devils’ veterans were a major component as well, but there hasn’t been any consistency with the varying units on the floor game after game.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
Miami at Duke
When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham