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  • Monday night provided a reminder that Duke's eye-popping talent can often distract from its thin bench by comparison.
By Eric Single
January 14, 2019

Tre Jones had three steals in the first four and a half minutes of a game in which Duke jumped out to a 14–2 lead, but his extra effort to corral steal number four just over a minute later changed the complexion of the Blue Devils' first conference loss and maybe their entire season.

On a night when the Blue Devils were already without sharpshooter Cam Reddish, who sat out with an illness two days after hitting the game-winning three against Florida State, they lost their point guard and best defensive player on an early loose ball collision. The ensuing breakneck, shootout loss to a middling Syracuse team, 95–91 in overtime, raised some sobering concerns about what lies ahead for the Blue Devils if Jones misses extended time. He was ruled out indefinitely with a separated AC joint. 

After the Orange had somewhat recovered from a 12–0 Blue Devils run off the opening tip, Jones knocked the ball from center Pascal Chukwu underneath the basket and then dove to the floor at the same time as Syracuse guard Frank Howard, who slammed into Jones's right shoulder and left him writhing. Jones went to the locker room and did not return, and Krzyzewski said after the game that his point guard had suffered a shoulder sprain—not a broken collarbone as Jones initially feared.

Syracuse, which matched its season-low with 59 points in a home loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday, played fearlessly on offense from that point on. The Orange's 85 points in regulation were the second-most the Blue Devils have allowed all year, behind only their Maui Invitational final loss to Gonzaga. The visitors, with Tyus Battle scoring 20 of his 32 points in the first half and Frank Howard scoring 16 in the second half and overtime, drained tough look after tough look, and the ease with which they got into their half-court offense was evident without Jones on the floor to pester the ball-handler.

The Orange shot 43.8% from the floor, and Chukwu cleaned up what didn't fall with 18 rebounds to go with his 10 points. "We've worked too hard not to take open shots," Battle told ESPN's Allison Williams in his postgame interview.

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Jones's injury produced some glaring effects on the offensive end as well, even though the Blue Devils rarely need him to score to make their offense hum. After some failed early experiments with Jordan Goldwire, the Blue Devils had R.J. Barrett bring the ball up the court in Jones's absence, with Jack White and Alex O'Connell at the top of Syracuse's 2–3 zone. O'Connell set a career-high with 16 points, draining a corner three with the shot clock running down to push the lead back out to five with 10:13 left and hitting a three to open his team's scoring in OT. White was ... less effective, finishing 0-for-10 from the field (all three-pointers) on a night when he saw a career-high 42 minutes. For his part, Barrett needed 30 shots to score 23 points.

Not even a superb night from Zion Williamson could save Duke in its shorthanded state. Williamson set a Duke freshman record with 35 points and bullied his way to most of his 10 rebounds with a flourish, confident that he could dominate the Orange's interior players. (He took forward Marek Dolezaj out of the picture when the 6'10", 180-pound sophomore took a full-speed charge from Williamson in the first half and watched from the bench the rest of the way.)

When Williamson sat the entire second half of Saturday's escape in Tallahassee after getting poked in the eye, Barrett and Reddish stepped up to supply 55 of Duke's 80 points. The Blue Devils have proven twice in three days that you can take away one of their trio of top-five recruits and the other two will raise their level of play to counter. However, without Jones to handle the point and lead the backcourt pressure, all five players on the floor looked to be feeling the effects of the additional workload. Even Williamson launched a few ill-advised deep balls late as Duke scrambled to stay with an Orange lineup that couldn't miss.

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With Jones likely missing extending time, Duke will have to patch together a long-term solution without a true backup point guard. Barrett and Williamson are more than happy to have the ball in their hands, and obviously Reddish's return to action will take a load off everyone involved. But Syracuse, even on a charmed night, is miles away from the biggest challenge Duke will face in league play, and that realization should put pressure on players like O'Connell, White and center Marques Bolden to deliver more consistently on occasions when they're forced to take on a larger offensive and defensive burden.

The Blue Devils' immediate problem is Saturday's primetime showdown at home against Virginia, in which Cavaliers guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy should be able to pick Duke apart if they aren't being pestered by defense on Jones's level. More broadly, Monday night provided a reminder that Duke's eye-popping talent can often distract from its thin bench by comparison—even if only elite teams (like Gonzaga) and outlier performances (like Syracuse's) ever get the chance to take advantage.

 

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