No. 5 Duke still rolling – even without 3 injured freshmen
DURHAM, N.C. (AP) This isn't the Duke team that was picked No. 1 in the preseason.
That's no slight to these current Blue Devils, who in their present composition have been plenty strong enough to win seven of eight, take down Michigan State and earn a No. 5 ranking.
But beneath the surface, one question lingers: How much better will this team be once three injured freshman big men – Harry Giles, Marques Bolden and Jayson Tatum – are finally healthy enough to play?
Coach Mike Krzyzewski says it's still not quite time to find out.
''We're getting there, but it'll be a while,'' Krzyzewski said after the 78-69 victory over the Spartans on Tuesday night. ''We just have to keep playing our butts off and keep trying to win. Every team's season is a little bit different. We just have to run our race the way we're running it, and eventually, hopefully, we'll get all those guys.''
Those three were major reasons why Duke (7-1) was the favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and voted to the top spot in the preseason polls.
But the Blue Devils insist they're not content to merely tread water until those three are ready to go.
''We know how good we are – we're still improving, and we know when we incorporate these guys back in, we're going to be that much better,'' All-America guard Grayson Allen said. ''But right now we're very confident with what we have. We're not playing a waiting game where we're waiting for those guys to get back. We're going full speed and approaching every game that way, and I think the group that we have has done a great job fighting with a shorter bench, just being tough and really playing a lot of minutes.''
In the past week, the three five-star freshmen have taken part in pregame warmups, with an inordinate amount of attention being paid to what happens in those layup lines. Bolden and Giles have gone through those drills at closer to full speed than Tatum.
Giles had his left knee scoped in early October to clean up scar tissue after he tore ligaments three years ago. Tatum sprained his foot during a practice in front of NBA scouts later that month, and Bolden suffered a lower leg injury during the team's first exhibition game.
Krzyzewski has often emphasized his team's long-term goals over any short-term jolt that might come from rushing them into action before they're healthy – and risking re-injury. He said during the preseason that Duke is ''going to try to conduct our season appropriately'' because the key question is ''will we have all the talent available at the time you have the opportunity to win the championship?''
But after the Michigan State win, he acknowledged the frustration his freshmen feel at having to watch such a high-intensity game from the bench.
''The thing that's most frustrating to the kids who are hurt – a game like tonight, man, that's what they live for,'' he said. ''These guys want to be in that game.''
Depth wasn't supposed to be an issue for this seemingly loaded Duke team. But those three injuries, plus a nagging toe injury that has kept Allen from practicing, once again has the Blue Devils trying to figure things out.
Duke played just six men against Michigan State – the starting five, plus reserve big man Chase Jeter – in what felt like a flashback to 2015-16 when the injury-ravaged Blue Devils routinely went only six or seven deep.
''We had visions of, `Man, our practices are going to be hellacious, five-on-five,''' Krzyzewski said. ''We haven't had that at all. It's crazy.''
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