Abridged Game Preview by @RandyDunson: Duke Blue Devils vs. Syracuse Orange – January 18, 2016

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Abridged Game Preview (Special Section on Amile Jefferson & Endgame)

Duke Blue Devils (14-4, 3-2] vs. Syracuse Orange (12-7, 2-4]

Monday, January 18, 2016 • 7:00 PM • ESPN • Durham, NC • Cameron Indoor Stadium

By Randy Dunson [Note: Please direct comments, suggestions, etc. to @RandyDunson.]

 

Amile Jefferson

There is a phrase that Mike Krzyzewski seems to be repeating a lot over the past few weeks. Notwithstanding Amile’s injury, I must admit that I have heard the same thing, but in different context, over the years. As an aside, the Hall of Fame coach might hedge on a fact or two, but when it comes to injuries, Coach K tells it like it is.

First, the phrase that has been repeated in one form or another. “We’re not a great team. We’re a good team,” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s loss to Clemson on Wednesday. “We don’t have subs. I’ve been saying that from the beginning.” Well, I am not so sure about the latter, but we will just move along!

Krzyzewski had essentially the exact same quote after Duke won at Wake Forest last week. There, he acknowledged the disconnect between the team on the floor and the title contender that so many expected it to be this season. “We’re not a really good team, we’re a good team,” Krzyzewski said. “We don’t have many guys, man. Those five national championship banners, none of those guys are coming out of the woodworks.”

I would expect the “good team” references would continue to be repeated until one of two things happen

  • this core freshmen gel together into a much better, but not a great team, or
  • the expectations are adjusted for this year’s Blue Devils team

There are a few factors contributing to Duke’s depth issues, but none more than the loss of Amile Jefferson to a foot injury that has him out indefinitely. Jefferson was the team’s most experienced big guy, a player who Krzyzewski says has “been through the wars.”

The Blue Devils were playing their eighth straight game without Amile Jefferson, a 6’9″ senior who played an integral role in giving the team size and leadership. They’re 6-2 in those contests but have had real trouble on the boards. In Utah’s upset win in NYC, the Utes grabbed 56 boards to Duke’s 38.

“Losing (Jefferson) [caused] us to do more different things than probably any other guy we would’ve lost,” Krzyzewski said, per ESPN.com. “On the perimeter we have a little bit of depth, but Amile is a very unique player.”

“He’s been in huge games,” Krzyzewski pointed out on the ACC coaches teleconference recently. “And just leadership wise and how he plays, his poise, his toughness, his voice. All those things, you can’t ask one person to make up for that. You just try to develop everybody to help in that regard.”

If there is any advantage to the hand Duke has been dealt, it could be that the very thin rotation is very young, talented and eager to please. Grayson Allen may be a sophomore in name but he logged just 51 minutes of game time on the road in ACC play last season. That said, he was playing alongside three top NBA draft picks, Senior Quinn Cook, and then-junior Amile.

Allen, along with the freshman trio of Brandon Ingram, Derryck Thornton and Luke Kennard are talented enough to hang with any team in the country, but not yet consistent enough to avoid losses like the one on Wednesday to an experienced and well-coached Clemson team.

However, since most of the Blue Devils’ six-man rotation is new to this whole ACC regular season thing, they’re actually more flexible from game-to-game. Duke can change what it does, adjust on the fly and play with a little more freedom. That can make this Duke team very dangerous, but it can also make them vulnerable in some of the difficult spots every team finds in conference play.

Even with the depth issues, Duke’s still a threat in the ACC and a pick to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Grayson Allen has been an offensive force, shooting 49.5 percent, averaging 20 points per game and playing nearly every minute he can stand on the floor. Brandon Ingram has played 150 of the 160 possible minutes in Duke’s four ACC games, highlighting his comfort and ability at the rim (27 rebound and 10 blocks in ACC play) and behind the arc (12 3-point field goals in the same stretch).

Jefferson, meanwhile, watches on from the sideline with no determined timetable. His absence has highlighted his importance to the fabric of this team, which is probably more than anyone expected coming into the season. His fellow veterans, Marshall Plumlee and Matt Jones, have helping carry out that leadership role as voices on the floor.

Endgame

Syracuse (12-7, 2-4 Atlantic Coast) rides back-to-back conference wins into Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night to face now No. 9 Duke (14-4, 3-2), who is coming off back-to-back losses against Clemson and Notre Dame. The Blue Devils fell to the Fighting Irish 95-91 on Saturday, while the Orange romped over Wake Forest by 28 behind 25 points from Trevor Cooney.

In terms of series history, Duke leads it 5-3.

When they last played, then No. 4 Duke overwhelmed the Orange in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Justise Winslow’s season-high 23 points lead the way for the Blue Devils. Syracuse shot an abysmal 19-of-62 from the field and 3-of-20 from beyond the arc. Tyler Roberson led the Cuse with 16 points and nine rebounds, but his frontcourt counterpart Jahlil Okafor logged a double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds in the lopsided win.

The Blue Devils are fourth in the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ranking behind Notre Dame, North Carolina, and Southern Methodist. Duke has not scored fewer than 80 points in any home game and only one game saw the Blue Devils put up fewer than 70. Duke ranks second in the conference in 3-point field-goal percentage and are led by sophomore guard Grayson Allen, the ACC’s second-leading scorer with 20.2 points per game. Duke’s most noted Achilles heel is the absence of Amile Jefferson still sidelined due to injury. He has factored in all four matchups with Syracuse over the past two seasons. His absence leaves the frontcourt duties primarily to Marshall Plumlee and freshman Brandon Ingram as it has become quite evident that Chase Jeter and Sean Obi will see few if any playing time.

Luke Kennard had a season-high 30 points against the Fighting Irish, and fellow freshman Brandon Ingram finished with 25. Duke ranks second nationally in scoring at 86.9 points per game but is giving up an average of 70.7, which would be its worst since allowing 71.3 per game in 1999-2000.

The Blue Devils haven’t lost to three consecutive unranked foes since February 1-11, 2007, part of a four-game skid that also marks the last time they dropped back-to-back home games. They lost four straight, including their first NCAA Tournament game, to end that same season, which also is the last time they lost three in a row overall.

Hiccups to start conference play are nothing new for the Blue Devils, who have lost two of their first five ACC games in each of the last four seasons. They lost back-to-back games around this time in 2014-15 before going on to win the national championship.

Syracuse could upset (depending on how you define “upset”) Duke as they are on the rise and Duke is reeling. Duke opponents score 58.1 percent of their points inside the arc and that ranks sixth in the country, according to KenPom. With Jefferson out, teams are attacking the interior and Syracuse can do the same. Tyler Roberson has been more effective finishing at the rim for the Orange and so too has Dajuan Coleman, who made all three of his field-goal attempts in the paint. If the Orange can hit a string of outside shots early as Cooney did against Wake Forest, it will open up the interior, and Syracuse can attack an already thin Blue Devils frontcourt.

Syracuse has the lowest percentage of bench minutes in the country, according to KenPom, but Duke is not much deeper. The Blue Devils bench players see only 26 percent of a game’s minutes on average, which ranks 321st in the nation. If Syracuse can wear down Duke in transition (it is unlikely because the Blue Devils have the seventh-best turnover percentage in the country), Krzyzewski may be forced to dip further, but do not count on it.

Luke Kennard may not be as prominent as Allen or Ingram, but as noted above, the freshman’s season-high 30 points against the Fighting Irish puts him well on Syracuse’s radar. He has scored in double figures in each of Duke’s five ACC games and has only had one game shooting below 50 percent from the field in conference play. Kennard can also get to the rim and draw contact, which SU may not want to incite since Kennard shoots a whopping 92.4 percent from the foul line, which ranks sixth in the country.

Given the very close similarity between the two teams and the fact that one is on the rise while the other is on the fall, I am going to rely on the oddsmakers and call this Duke’s way.

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