Luke DeCock

Suddenly, Duke’s season hinges on Tre Jones’ injured hinge

A game that had just about everything ending up being more notable for what it ended up missing.

All season long, while Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett and even Cam Reddish have gotten the attention and acclaim, Tre Jones has been the quiet metronome behind the Duke machine. No one every really doubted his value, on both sides of the ball, but if there was still any question Monday removed any doubt.

After losing Reddish, coming off his Saturday buzzer-beater at Florida State, to sudden illness just before tipoff, the Blue Devils lost Jones early in the first half after a head-on collision with Frank Howard going after a loose ball. Jones didn’t seem to see Howard coming as they both dove to the floor and took the brunt of the impact on his right shoulder.

It’s not a stretch to say Duke’s season now depends on how quickly Jones recovers from what the team later said was an AC joint separation. With Jones in the game, he had four steals in the first six minutes and the Blue Devils scored the game’s first 11 points. Without him, they squandered a seven-point lead to lose in overtime, 95-91, to a Syracuse team that lost at home to Georgia Tech 48 hours ago.

Duke guard Tre Jones (3) collides with Syracuse guard Frank Howard (23) and suffered a suffered an acromioclavicular (AC) joint separation and left the game in the first half of play. Syracuse upset the number 1 ranked Blue Devils 95-91 in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Monday, January 14, 2019. Chuck Liddy

Suddenly, the season hinges on Jones’ injured hinge.

“Life happens,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “Life happened to our team tonight. Some unusual things.”

Many, many unusual things.

Duke guard Tre Jones (3) lays on the floor after being injured in the first half against Syracuse at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Monday, January 14, 2019. He did not return in the first half, Chuck Liddy

By the time it ended with Syracuse storming the floor, Jack White had gone a stunning 0-for-10 from 3-point range and the rest of the Blue Devils jacked up another 33 against the zone, making nine.

Williamson finished with 35 points and got Syracuse’s entire team in foul trouble in the first half working inside the zone but missed the free throw at the end of regulation that would have put Duke in the lead. Tyus Battle and Elijah Hughes made improbable shot after improbable shot, whether it was Hughes dodging the scoreboard to heave in a 70-footer before halftime or Battle hitting a diverse array of pull-up jumpers and fadeaways on his way to 32 points.

Williamson left an impression not only on Marek Dolezaj, who had to exit the game injured after taking a charge from the 285-pound forward, but Jim Boeheim as well.

“He’s like Charles Barkley was, except he can shoot it,” Boeheim said. “And he’s not as fat.”

Barrett, Battle and Hughes each played all 45 minutes and Williamson 44. Those four combined for 110 of the game’s 186 points. Good thing the Blue Devils don’t play again until Saturday. Not-so-good thing it’s a potential ACC regular-season decider against Virginia, surely without Jones, who Krzyzewski said would be out “for a while.”

It was a lot, even before the bonus basketball.

ESPN has tried to force-feed this rivalry down everyone’s throats since Syracuse joined the ACC, to the predictable and legitimate bristling of ACC loyalists, but maybe the worldwide leader is on to something after all.

Previous editions of this game have featured Boeheim storming the floor like the Flying Nun and a non-call that Krzyzewski declared “amazing, literally amazing,” stopping on his way off the floor for an extended and predominantly one-sided discussion with ACC basketball commissioner Paul Brazeau on press row.

This one had as much, if not more, to offer than those instant classics – but in its own way, looms as even more pivotal.

Like his older brother before him, Jones is the key to making all of these parts fit together. Duke is a completely different team – different program, almost – with one of the Jones boys running the point. And even more than Tyus, Tre is an elite, lockdown, on-the-ball defender, the tip of the Duke pressure spear. Earlier this season, Krzyzewski compared him to the best in Duke history: Amaker, Hurley, Wojciechowski.

That’s not praise thrown around loosely. It is not praise thrown around at all. Ever.

Duke could more easily adjust to losing Williamson or Barrett or Reddish, each of whom can assume the others’ roles to a considerable degree, than figure out what to do without Jones for however long he’s out.

The way Duke struggled at both ends of the court Monday against a team it should have beaten easily – and was on its way to beating oh-so-easily before Jones hit the floor – only underlines Jones’ value. For a team with national-title ambitions, national-title-or-bust ambitions, his absence has revealed him to be irreplaceable.

“There are bumps in the road along the way for a lot of people,” Krzyzewski said. “This was a very difficult night for our basketball program and our team. we’ll figure out ways of handling it.

For all the talent on Duke’s roster – the top two picks in the NBA draft, it increasingly appears – Jones is the key to making it all mesh. He has made it all work. And now, for the foreseeable future, they’re going to have to make it work without him.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.