Duke ‘not great,’ adjusting to playing without injured Amile Jefferson

Mike Krzyzewski has been returning to the same phrase over the last couple weeks to describe the current state of the Blue Devils. Since Hall of Fame coaches with multiple titles don’t have to pull punches or fluff up the truth, Coach K tells it like it is.

“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.”

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’d expect the “good team” references will continue to be repeated until one of two things happen: a) the expectations are adjusted for this year’s Blue Devils team, or b) this young core gels together into a great team that can content for the Final Four.

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.”

“He’s been in huge games,” Krzyzewski pointed out on the ACC coaches teleconference this week. “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’s that the very thin rotation is very young, talented and eager to please, according to Krzyzewski. 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. 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.

But 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 — “they’re not so entrenched in any habits,” Krzyzewski says. 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, showcasing 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.

Duke’s good without Jefferson, but not great. On Saturday at 2 p.m. the Blue Devils host a Notre Dame team that’s really good, but not great. Mike Brey is the only former Coach K assistant to beat Duke and he’s done it three times in the last three years. There’s a lot of pride on the line this weekend but even more to learn as these two “good, not great” teams with ACC title aspirations clash in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Amile Jefferson (foot) has no set date for return. (USATSI)

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