Luke DeCock

As March arrives, Jackson making his case for Duke – DeCock

Krzyzewski lauds team and dismisses stories of Duke being in a "slump" after home finale

Blue Devils leader speaks about Duke and their big win over FSU 75-70 in their home season finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
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Blue Devils leader speaks about Duke and their big win over FSU 75-70 in their home season finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

At one point, after Florida State's Xavier Rathan-Mayes knocked the ball away from him, Grayson Allen appeared to plead not with the officials for a call but the Duke bench for a new role. The Blue Devils went on a nice little seven-game run when Allen first took on point-guard duties, but with Allen since hobbled by a sore ankle, among other injuries, it's too much to ask of him now.

Which may not be the worst thing for Duke. After relying heavily on freshman Frank Jackson in the early going of the season, when the entire roster seemed to be injured, the Blue Devils' best option may be to turn back to him now.

Tuesday, he offered a little more evidence that he's ready for that role. With Allen on the bench, Jackson exploded for 13 of his 22 points in the first 4 ½ minutes of the second half to seize control of the game as Duke's lead went from nine to 19, banging in three 3-pointers in that one blizzard of baskets.

“They were really pressuring the wings, the other guards, so I just looked to attack,” Jackson said. “That's what I do. I stay aggressive. Coach is always telling me to be myself.”

The points came along with only one assist, as Jackson is by nature more of a combo guard than a true point guard, but he's the best option the Blue Devils have to handle the ball right now, whether Allen is hurt or not. And after scoring 16 points in Saturday's loss to Miami, he was Duke's most important player during its most important sequence in the 75-70 win.

“Just the growth of a freshman,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You could see it at Miami. He was just different. Better.”

Under different circumstances, Jackson might have played a bigger role for Duke throughout the season, as he did earlier. But as Allen and Tatum got healthy and into the lineup, opportunities for Jackson diminished. Allen's latest injury opened the door again, and Jackson has come storming through it. Krzyzyewski credited Jackson for giving the Blue Devils a chance to win in Coral Gables; Tuesday night, Jackson left no doubt.

“Frank played incredible today,” Allen said. “He was huge for us, especially that offensive explosion he had in the second half. He was really solid handling the ball, got us into our stuff, I thought he was big. He's improved a lot and he's getting a lot more comfortable out there. He's a lot more poised with the ball, handling pressure well.”

On a night that was supposed to be about players who won't be back next year, one player who's all but guaranteed to be back put himself in the spotlight.

This could have been the final home game for as many as six Duke players, not to mention longtime radio broadcaster Bob Harris. Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones are gone. Allen most likely is, as are freshmen Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. And what about Luke Kennard? Duke may not have expected to lose Kennard coming into the season, but his NBA stock will never be higher than this.

Duke graduate forward Amile Jefferson talks about Duke's 75-70 win over No. 15 Florida State on Tuesday night.

“Yeah, it’s our senior night, but it’s our group’s last game in Cameron,” Jefferson acknowledged.

It only felt like it was Jefferson's second – or third – senior honors Tuesday night. After five years, and the foot injury that caused him to redshirt last season, it finally arrived. Same for Jones, who showed up on campus a year later but has shared the same strange array of experiences with Jefferson at Duke.

Those two have seen it all, a national title and a first-round exit, an Elite 8 and a Sweet 16. Jefferson has gone 6-1 against North Carolina and Jones 5-2, with (at least) one game still to play. And yet there's still one giant hole in their collective resumes: In the years before Jefferson's arrival, Duke won 10 of the previous 14 ACC championships. It hasn't won the tournament (or the regular season) since, and Jones and Jefferson have one last shot at it next week in Brooklyn.

Two years ago, Quinn Cook went through his career without an ACC title of any kind, but won a national title in his final game in a Duke uniform. Jones and Jefferson shared that title as well, but ACC glory has so far eluded them.

With Allen at less than full strength and Jefferson still dealing with that sore foot, the Blue Devils will need help from elsewhere if they're going to make that run. Giles is one possibility, as he continues to seek the elusiveness that made him the No. 1 recruit in the country before his knee injuries intervened. He shows flashes of the old elasticity at times, and perhaps will be able to summon more of it in March.

Or maybe it's a different freshman, one less likely leaving for the NBA, who could be the difference for Duke in March. Jackson hasn't always looked that way, but he couldn't have made a stronger impression Tuesday.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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