In No. 18 Louisville’s 71–64 win over No. 20 Duke on Saturday, ESPN play-by-play announcer Dave O’Brien described the Blue Devils’ rotation as “terribly thin,” which somehow might be an understatement. Coach Mike Krzyzewski used seven players in the loss, but perhaps only because the rules of basketball mandate that there are five players on the court for each team.
With senior forward Amile Jefferson (foot) and junior guard Matt Jones (ankle) sidelined with injuries, Duke entered the KFC Yum! Center with its shortest bench of the season. Jefferson sustained a fracture in his right foot during practice in December and Jones sprained his ankle in Duke’s win over North Carolina on Wednesday. Neither has played since their respective injuries, and Duke’s rotation only became thinner after tip-off against Louisville.
Freshman guard Derryck Thornton briefly went to the locker room in the second half to be evaluated for a right shoulder injury, while fellow guards Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard fouled out in the final four minutes in a two-possession game.
Jones went through warmups before the first half but not the second, and when Krzyzewski went to his reserves, he called the number of Chase Jeter, a former five-star recruit who has spent most of his freshman season buried on Duke’s bench.
Jeter had five points and two rebounds—his best stat line of the calendar year—but he’s hardly a reliable or consistent option to play major minutes, let alone produce at a high level.
The stretches where Coach K digs into his bench for frontcourt help are when Duke really misses Jefferson, a veteran post presence who averaged a double double before his injury. The Blue Devils had been able to weather Jefferson’s absence as of late, as seen by their five-game winning streak entering Saturday, which featured three straight wins over ranked teams.
But Duke’s recent success without Jefferson has proven have a razor-thin margin of error. The Blue Devils could endure the loss of one major contributor, but if any more players are unavailable due to injuries or foul trouble, Krzyzewski is forced to use the players at the back of his rotation. Both injuries and foul trouble struck on Saturday.
Duke led by four when Thornton left the game with 9:08 remaining. He re-entered with 3:55 left, but only after Allen fouled out with Duke trailing by six. When Kennard fouled out in the final minute, Krzyzewski replaced him with guard Nick Pagliuca, who’s listed as a “reliable practice player” in his player bio on Duke’s website.
Louisville was the perfect storm of an opponent to bring Duke down to earth after its winning streak. The Cardinals have the most efficient defense in the country and the 12th tallest effective height in the country, per kenpom.com.
Jefferson would have been a useful piece against Louisville’s frontcourt and his absence only exacerbated the injuries and foul trouble that plagued Duke’s backcourt.
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Duke’s depth should soon receive a boost, as Krzyzewski told reporters after the game he expects Jones to play on Thursday against Florida State and he hopes Thornton's injury is just a shoulder contusion, which would allow him to play as well.
But for a shorthanded, perimeter-oriented Duke team, the return of a healthy Jefferson is the key to unlocking this team’s potential, which was severely limited in Saturday’s loss.