Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has dealt with in-season foot injuries before.
Bobby Hurley in 1991-92, Elton Brand in 1997-98, Carlos Boozer in 2000-01, Kyrie Irving in 2010-11. In each season, the Blue Devils lost a key player. Krzyzewski adapted, shifted personnel and kept the team on course until that star returned.
Krzyzewski and Duke face the same predicament as the Atlantic Coast Conference season approaches. Starting forward Amile Jefferson, who was averaging a double-double, broke a bone in his ankle diving for a loose ball in practice. It won’t require surgery. He’ll have the cast removed and be re-examined on Dec. 26th. There’s no timetable for his return.
In his absence, the Blue Devils must discover a new identity. And there aren’t many options available. Krzyzewski rarely uses more than an eight-man rotation, and Duke was surviving with seven, three of which are freshmen, prior to Jefferson’s injury. They don’t have a trustworthy post player on the bench.
“It’s a huge period of adjustment for us,” Krzyzewski told the media Tuesday following Duke’s 34-point win over Georgia Southern. “We have to take a look at how we play defense, what we do … eventually look at ways of conditioning unconventionally.”
Duke was a fringe contender for the national championship realistically with Jefferson. Without him, they’re one more injury or tightly officiated game away from a disaster. Krzyzewski said Duke would go to no-contact practices, consider using elliptical machines or the water to maintain conditioning and preserve what appears to be a six-man rotation, with cameo appearances by freshman center Chase Jeter.
“We can score,” Krzyzewski said. “The two things that can stop you from scoring, besides the other team, is having tired legs and being in foul trouble. So we have to think of ways … that’s where we’re at. We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Nor do they expect to receive any sympathy from opponents. Krzyzewski understands that offenses will target slender freshman Brandon Ingram, who will likely play the bulk of his minutes at the power forward slot in Jefferson’s absence, and try to put him in foul trouble. Having a versatile, elite scorer at that position has worked well for 30 years at Duke, from Danny Ferry to Grant Hill, Shane Battier to Justise Winslow. But each of those future NBA pros had more pounds on their frame than the 190-pound Ingram and more teammates to spell them on the bench.
Jefferson arrived at Duke as a McDonald’s All-American, played sparingly as a freshman and has taken on a larger role each season. He was named a captain in the fall and was having what Krzyzewski rightfully labeled a “sensational season.” Through Duke’s first nine games, the 6-9, 220-pound senior averaged 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds, connected on 68.3 percent of his field goal attempts.
Besides filling the stat sheet, Jefferson was also a versatile defender, capable of guarding a guard, forward or center. He also had the loud, dominant voice as the chief of the defense, calling out screens and barking instructions at his younger teammates from his post in the paint.
Senior center Marshall Plumlee will help fill the leadership void, but the 7-footer is a true center whose best defense is played near the basket.
The good news for 9-1 Duke is the next month of the schedule is rather manageable without Jefferson. Of its next six opponents, only Utah (41) who Duke faces Saturday in New York City, and Wake Forest (96) are currently inside the top 100 of the Pomeroy Ratings. The Blue Devils’ first stiff conference test is a Jan. 16th home date with potent Notre Dame.
Per usual, the Blue Devils ACC schedule is backloaded. They’ll need Jefferson back at full speed by mid-February for certain, when they face Louisville (twice), Virginia, North Carolina and Florida State in a five-game stretch that could determine whether Duke is a contender for the ACC regular season title.
In typical fashion, Krzyzewski was matter of fact about the Blue Devils fortunes as they face an uncertain future without a key cog in their machine.
“Dad lost a job, we all got to go to work.”