WASHINGTON, D.C. – Duke headed back to Durham Thursday night, hours after the disappointing loss to Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the 2016 ACC Tournament.
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"The good thing is we’re going to play next week," Mike Krzyzewski told the media in the aftermath of the loss. "We get out of here and get some rest."
Duke has either seven or eight days – depending on whether the Blue Devils draw a Thursday or Friday opener in the NCAA Tournament – to rest and get rejuvenated.
It’s a week that this young, depth-less team needs.
"Let’s get rest," Krzyzewski said. "We’ve got to get Matt’s ankle completely well and get him back to playing where he was playing before that. [We’ve got to] get rejuvenated and get going."
Duke enters the 2016 NCAA Tournament in a peculiar situation. The Blue Devils have demonstrated the ability to play with and even beat some of the nation’s best teams. The win at North Carolina … the home win over Virginia (the two finalists in the ACC Tournament) and the homecourt domination of Big Ten champion Indiana – all provide evidence that Duke can compete with anybody.
But Duke has also been vulnerable to good teams, even down the stretch (note: Duke hasn’t lost to a non-NCAA team since Clemson, unless you count Louisville, which is an NCAA-quality team). The lack of depth inside and the danger from foul trouble is an over-riding concern going forward.
Allow me to address several issues facing the Blue Devils moving forward:
Krzyzewski specifically mentioned Matt Jones’ ankle problems, but that’s not the only concern. Marshall Plumlee is dealing with the nose he broke in the closing minutes of Wednesday’s victory over N.C. State. And several players appear to be wrestling with fatigue Thursday – whether the accumulation of a lot of minutes over the year or the difficulty of playing two tough games in 24 hours, I don’t claim to know.
Jones first sprained an ankle in Duke’s win at North Carolina on Feb. 17. It appeared at the time to be a severe injury, one that might sideline the junior guard for an extended period.
He missed one game, although he was clearly hobbled to some extent.
And in his third game back, Jones tweaked his other ankle. It wasn’t nearly as severe an injury, but the combination of sore ankles has clearly bothered him in the last few games – especially at the defensive end, where he had been Duke’s best defender.
I thought Jones was moving better in Washington than at any time since his first injury. He still didn’t appear to be 100 percent, but he was getting closer. Another week of rest will have to help.
It’s hard to guess how much Plumlee’s injury impacted his play against Notre Dame. The senior center was the player of the game against N.C. State – not only 17 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks – but his late three-point play (AFTER he broke his nose) proved to be the game-winner.
He was ineffective against Notre Dame.
How much of that was the nose and the unfamiliar mask that he wore and how much was due to the foul trouble that limited the senior big man to 24 minutes? He did look awful shooting (and missing) four free throws during Duke’s seven minute scoring drought and I think his nose/mask had something to do with that.
The bad news is that Plumlee’s nose is not going to heal in the week before Duke opens the NCAA Tournament. The good news is that he will have a chance to get comfortable playing with the mask. And while the nose won’t fully heal, it will be better a week from now – less sensitive -- and that could help.
As for fatigue, it’s hard to say how much a week of rest will help. Coach K jumped on me Thursday night for asking Grayson Allen if fatigue might have anything to do with Duke’s late shooting problems against the Irish. The Duke coach defended Grayson as one of those rare kids "who don’t get tired".
I don’t disagree – remember the North Carolina game in Cameron – Allen played 40 minutes and at the end, he was the guy with the most energy on the court.
But I’m not sure Allen’s endurance is quite matched by all his teammates. One player I worry most about is Brandon Ingram. Remember his energy – and domination – of UNC in Chapel Hill? I had a friend who visited the Duke locker room after that game and suggested that Ingram was so drained that he could barely stand.
I thought about that when Duke played at Louisville three days later and Ingram struggled through one of his worst games (eight points, five rebounds and 10 turnovers).
The slender freshman was much more effective against N.C. State Wednesday afternoon than he was against Notre Dame 24 hours later. Fatigue? I’d ask K, but I don’t want to get chewed out again.
But I think the week off probably helps Ingram and several other young Blue Devils a lot. I expect to see him at his best Thursday or Friday when Duke opens the NCAA Tournament. I just hope he has the ability to bounce back 36 to 48 hours later when the Devils (hopefully) compete in the second round.
For most of the season – at least since Amile Jefferson was hurt in late December – Duke has been a six-man team … with one true post player.
Krzyzewski kept trying to get a few minutes from freshman Chase Jeter – with little success. And sophomore transfer Sean Obi just wasn’t able to play.
The most encouraging thing about the Notre Dame game was the positive contributions of Jeter and Obi off the bench. When Plumlee got in early foul trouble, Jeter stepped in and played at a level we haven’t seen this season. And when Jeter ran into his own foul trouble, Obi, appearing in his first game since playing less than a minute at N.C. State on Jan. 23, came in and delivered six very serviceable minutes.
Krzyzewski explained that Obi has made considerable physical progress in recent weeks.
"A lot of it is his physical condition," the Duke coach said. "He doesn’t have great knees. In practice, halfcourt wise, he’s always had a great attitude. He has been a great guy for the scout team. The guy has confidence. He has an unbelievable attitude. He’s actually moving pretty well right now."
Jeter has shown signs of finally learning to harness his abundant talent. He played a useful 17 minutes at Louisville (five points, two rebounds, one assist, one steal), then came back with his best outing of the season in 12 strong minutes against Florida State (three points, five rebounds, a blocked shot).
Jeter topped that against Notre Dame. He battled Zach Auguste on better than even terms in the first half (seven points and five rebounds in six minutes of action). He looked like the player rated a top 12 prospect coming out of high school. He’s still not there – Auguste broke loose in the last 10 minutes and abused both Plumlee and Jeter.
"Chase had been playing better," Krzyzewski said.
That’s promising going forward. Krzyzewski pointed out that it’s too late in the season to install a two big-man set, so Jeter is likely to remain a backup. And Obi’s knees still won’t let him play more than a few minutes at a stretch.
Still, that’s a far better situation that just a couple of weeks ago, when Obi was buried at the end of the bench and Jeter’s brief appearances were cringe-worthy.
Duke is still not a deep team, but now the Blue Devils have at least a little post depth.
Duke won’t have to sweat the last three days before the NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed Sunday evening. The Blue Devils know they are in the field.
The only questions are where and when will they be playing next week?
First off, don’t expect to see Duke in Raleigh.
The way the process works, each site hosts two four-team pods. Each pod can include just one team per conference. And the top-seeded teams are given geographical preference.
Duke is below North Carolina, Virginia and Miami in the seeding process – three teams that would prefer a slot in Raleigh. I’m 99.9 percent certain that with Virginia’s victory over Miami Friday night in the ACC semifinals, the Cavaliers will join UNC in Raleigh.
That’s not a bad thing (except for the Duke fans living in North Carolina). There was a time when opening the NCAA Tournament in North Carolina was a huge advantage for Duke. Between 1986 and 2009, Duke played 24 first and second round games in North Carolina – and won 23 of them (the one loss coming to Providence in the second round of the 1997 NCAA Tournament in Charlotte).
That advantage seems to have disappeared in recent years. No. 2 seed Duke lost its NCAA opener to Lehigh in Greensboro in 2012 and the No. 3 seeded Blue Devils lost the opener to Mercer in Raleigh two years later.
True, the 2011 and 2015 Duke teams were a combined 4-0 in Charlotte. But that’s no better than the 2010 national champs and the 2013 Elite Eight team, which started their drives with a pair of wins in Jacksonville, Fla., and Philadelphia, respectively.
So it should be no great disadvantage for this year’s Duke team to start its quest away from home. Personally, I’d like to see Duke in Brooklyn (where the 2015 Devils beat Temple and Stanford and the 2017-18 Devils will compete in the ACC Tournament). But if it turns out to be Des Moines or Denver or Spokane … no problem.
The actual seeding – and the matchups that go with it – will be an issue.
At best, Duke will start as a No. 4 seed – but it could be lower.
You’ll see a lot of negative projections based on Duke’s "low" seeding. ESPN has already run a graphic pointing out that Duke has only reached the Sweet 16 once under Krzyzewski as less than a No. 3 seed.
Allow me to point out how that kind of number is misleading. The truth is, Duke has been worse than a No. 3 seed just three times in Krzyzewski’s 31 previous NCAA trips:
-- As a No. 5 seed in 1987, Duke reached the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual champion Indiana in a hard-fought game.
-- As a No. 8 seed in 1996, a crippled Duke team (starting a soccer player walk-on at forward) lost to Eastern Michigan in the opener.
-- As a No. 6 seed in 2007, Duke lost a heartbreaker to VCU in the opener as Eric Maynor hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer.
Duke’s NCAA record as a below No. 3 seed under Krzyzewski is 2-3. The team seeded most similarly to where this team will be seeded reached the Sweet 16.
Make of that what you will.
And, by the way, you can add another Duke team to the picture – Bill Foster’s last Duke team was seeded No. 4 in 1980 – and reached the Elite Eight after upsetting top-seeded Kentucky on its home court.
So expectations for a Duke team seeded No. 4 or No. 5 should be at least a trip to the Sweet 16.
LIFE GOES ON
The ACC Tournament continued Thursday night and Friday night without Duke.
The amazing thing about the tournament so far is how closely it’s followed form. The lower seeded team has won just one of the first 12 games – No. 10 Georgia Tech rallied to defeat No. 7 Clemson in the second round.
Every other game has been won by the higher seeded team – even when those teams were tied and the seeding was determined by tiebreakers – Pitt over Syracuse, Notre Dame over Duke and Virginia’s semifinal victory over Miami.
That bodes well for top-seeded North Carolina in tonight’s championship game.
By returning to the championship game, UNC extends a remarkable streak. Either Duke or North Carolina has appeared in the championship game 54 times in 63 tournaments – including the last 20 in a row. The 1996 Wake Forest-Georgia Tech final was the last one without one of the Bluebloods in the championship game.
For North Carolina, this has been a frustrating streak. The Tar Heels have lost in the finals in 2011 (to Duke), 2012 (to Florida State), 2013 (to Miami) and 2015 (to Notre Dame).
UNC will be trying to win its 18th ACC championship in the title game ... Virginia will be seeking its third (and second in three years). The four-year gap since Duke or UNC has won the title is the longest in the league’s 63-year history.
Will it reach five years?