Matt Jones’s elbow had turned numb by the time the game ended, and he didn’t even get the worst of it. Midway through the second half, Jones fought for a rebound and inadvertently bashed his left elbow against Marshall Plumlee’s face. Jones felt a tingle. Plumlee felt his nose break and saw blood run down his lips. Knowing he had been the culprit, Jones apologized to his Duke teammate.
“I still look good,” Plumlee replied.
“Marshall,” Jones said, “you’re right.”
And that is the state Duke finds itself in at this juncture of the season, following its 92-89 shootout victory Wednesday over North Carolina State at Verizon Center: Bloodied, worse for wear, and still feeling great about themselves.
The Blue Devils survived Cat Barber’s 29 points and a host of hot Wolfpack shooters to reach the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, an advancement that will further the search for Duke’s breaking point, if it has one. All season, Duke has exhibited traits of both mediocrity and greatness. The Blue Devils are an offensive machine. Their defense vanishes often. They have a potentially transcendent player in freshman Brandon Ingram. They lost seven times in conference play. They beat North Carolina on the road.
They are a team capable of pretty much anything, good or bad, and that owes to the injury that shaped their season. After nine games, senior forward Amile Jefferson was lost for the season with a broken right foot. His absence made Duke young – it played four freshmen and a sophomore for stretches Wednesday – and remarkably thin. Coach Mike Krzyzewski employs a two-man bench, and one of those players, Chase Jeter, played eight minutes Wednesday.
The Blue Devils have, freshman Luke Kennard said, a “very slim” margin for error. But they also have as high a ceiling as any team in the country. Pick an NCAA tournament round, one through six, and you would not be surprised if Duke lost in it. But in a year without a dominant team, Duke’s array of three-point bombers and Ingram’s do-everything excellence makes it as big a threat as almost any team.
“We are thin, but we’ve been thin since Amile got hurt,” Krzyzewski said. “They’ve learned to be the team they are, which is a really good team.”
Their lack of depth makes this week a dicey proposition. Winning at Verizon Center could mean four games in four days in Washington. Their NCAA spot assured, it might be in Duke’s best interest to lose to Notre Dame in the quarterfinals and save its legs for the big prize.
The Blue Devils are mulling none of it. They plan on “around the clock” treatment, Jones said – cold tubs, stretching, foam rollers, recovery drinks – in order to be ready for the Fighting Irish. They believe their season has conditioned them uniquely for the grind of March, even with so many players logging so many minutes.
“I don’t think it’ll be a factor for us, just because of how tough we are,” Kennard said. “We’ve been through some adversity throughout the year, and we’ve battled through it. I don’t think it’ll take a toll on us as a group going into next week. It may for other teams, but I don’t it will for us.”
It might not be much of a quandary. Duke lost to the Irish at home, 95-91, back in January in their only meeting this season. In the past three years, Coach Mike Brey is 4-1 against his former Duke boss Krzyzewski (even if that one loss came by 30 points).
“What we do and what we’ve talked about coming into this week is, just don’t pace yourself and play one game at a time; let’s get better,” Krzyzewski said. “And we got better today, and we have to get better because State was so good. We’ll do the same thing tomorrow and if it ends up that we run out of gas, the one thing we have going for us next week: We know we’re in the tournament, we know we’ll be a decent seed, we have spring break next week, so that will help us. This tournament deserves – and this conference deserves – you playing your best. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Duke’s stars may be particularly susceptible to fatigue. Sophomore scorer Grayson Allen has played at least 36 minutes every game since Jan. 25, playing all 40 in four of them. In Duke’s past 14 games, Ingram has played 39 or 40 minutes 10 times, including another 40 against State.
“You’d rather be playing out on the court than on the bench,” Ingram said. “I have to have no excuses. I’m feeling great. I’m still young. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Even considering Allen’s driving ability and Plumlee’s rebounding muscle, the 6-foot-9 Ingram keys Duke. He made a 40-minute case Wednesday for why he should be the first pick in the NBA draft. There’s nothing he cannot do – if you had five Ingrams, you would have a complete basketball team.
Ingram scored 19 points in the first half, draining 4 of 5 three-pointers. His small frame invites questions about his strength, but at one point he found himself defended by 6-foot-8, 250-pound Lennard Freeman in the post, banged his left shoulder into Freeman’s chest and muscled in a shot. He frequently plays point guard, and he dished four assists. He snared seven rebounds and blocked a shot. On one play, he got switched on to Barber, the quickest player in the country, and kept him in front.
“Such a unique player,” Kennard said. “He can do anything.”
Ingram scored only three points in the second half, but even then he proved something. The Wolfpack devoted more defensive resources to stopping him, and so he worked to set up teammates instead of looking for his shot. He only took six shots in the second half but dished three assists.
“That’s just him growing throughout the season,” Jones said. “I’ve seen him not be able to make those decisions. But at this point, he’s growing up.”
Ingram gives Duke a chance, but then their defense makes them vulnerable. Krzyzewski lit into his players at halftime about their defensive effort. Duke’s defense has been exploited enough this season that it may be a question of ability, not grit.
“We know we can score the ball,” Kennard said. “We need to get stops. We can’t just expect to outscore teams in big games. If we’re hitting shots, we can’t just expect the game to be ours.”
It worked Wednesday afternoon. It may not have been easy, but it might keep working for another month, too.