It’s January 27 and the Duke basketball team sits at 9th place in the ACC with a 4-4 conference record and 15-6 overall.
The Blue Devils are currently ranked No. 24 in the AP Top 25 poll, but when the latest rankings come out next week, it will likely be the first time Duke isn’t ranked since the 2006-07 season.
That was also the last time Duke wasn’t considered an absolute lock to reach the NCAA Tournament, which is becoming more of a question for this year’s team.
With four games still on the schedule against Louisville and North Carolina, two Top 5 teams in the current Kenpom rankings, as well as contests against Virginia and Pittsburgh, it’s not a stretch to see Duke finishing the year at .500 or worse in the ACC.
Mike Krzyzewski has praised the effort of his team despite losing four of its last five games, but he’s also acknowledged that his group is limited in terms of depth.
So, where does Duke go from here? Can the problems that have led to this current slump be corrected, especially now that the Blue Devils are in the teeth of the conference schedule?
On the issue of depth, it comes down to two factors.
- Get Amile Jefferson Back
This is the biggest key to Duke’s entire season. The senior forward had the protective walking boot removed from his injured right foot last week, but there’s still no timetable for his return.
His insertion into the lineup makes such a difference for the Blue Devils because he’s the best on-court communicator and the most versatile post player on both ends of the floor. He makes Duke a much better rebounding team and takes pressure off Marshall Plumlee as the only option in the frontcourt.
If Jefferson can get back on the court and return to the form he showed early in the season, averaging 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds, Duke likely becomes a very dangerous low-seeded NCAA Tournament team. Without him, the Blue Devils may need a strong showing in the ACC Tournament to lock up a bid.
2. Chase Jeter Becomes an Option
The other player who could provide a solution to Duke’s depth issues is Chase Jeter. The freshman center has struggled to stay on the court for the Blue Devils, often looking overwhelmed on both offense and defense.
According to Chris Bunn of 247Sports, Jeter has been called for 14 fouls in 28 minutes of action in conference play. That’s a disaster. Not only is it failing to give a starter like Marshall Plumlee enough time to rest, it’s also helping the other team get to the free throw line.
If Jeter could become even a serviceable option in the paint, it would help Duke tremendously.
The other big problem for Duke right now is on the defensive end of the floor.
While the Blue Devils have the No. 2 offense in the country in Kenpom’s offensive efficiency rankings, they’re No. 150 in the defensive efficiency rankings. Teams have an effective FG% of nearly 49% and Duke’s allowing opponents to rebound nearly 33% of their own misses, which is one of the worst in the ACC.
Duke can’t stop teams for scoring, and when it does, it’s unable to prevent that team from getting second chance opportunities.
Without Amile Jefferson returning, it’s hard to see how this gets much better.
Matt Jones is the only player in the Duke rotation known as a defensive stopper, and even his defense has taken a step back this season as he’s had a more expanded role in the offense. The same used to be said about Marshall Plumlee, but he’s struggled as Duke’s only legitimate post defender.
Brandon Ingram’s length allows him the opportunity to be disruptive on defense with his ability to deflect passes and alter shots, but he’s still a freshman who can be exposed by more experienced players.
The lack of depth also makes Duke vulnerable to foul trouble, which Coach K has tried to avoid by going to more zone looks, but it’s still done nothing to fix the rebounding woes.
This lineup is more well-suited to outscore teams, but that becomes difficult when fatigue is an issue at the end of games.
Combine that with upcoming games against four teams in the Top 30 of the Kenpom offensive efficiency numbers (North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, & Pittsburgh), and Duke’s defensive problems could get even worse.
The reality is that Duke’s in a tough spot right now with a very unforgiving conference schedule. Fortunately, the Blue Devils have one of the best coaches in the history of sports to try to correct the issues.
It’s a good thing he’s one of the best because he’s certainly got his work cut out for him.