Even the best basketball players need a break. Even the greatest of the great occasionally make mistakes and require assistance. But when there's nobody there to back them up, even the most accomplished star athletes can stumble and fall.
Duke is well aware of this, with its ultra-thin lineup exposed in Wednesday's 68-63 loss at Clemson.
Duke's lead is high-quality; it's just extremely limited in its supply.
The Blue Devils (14-3, 3-1 ACC) are essentially a six-man team, rarely giving minutes to anyone other than their starters and freshman guard Luke Kennard. It's been this way since senior forward Amile Jefferson broke his foot in mid-December, leaving Duke with one reserve for its three guard spots and none for the frontcourt.
Somehow, it had avoided having this lack of depth be a serious problem until Wednesday, when someone finally took advantage of the foul trouble Duke was bound to find itself in at some point. And now that the blueprint has been established, much like a scouting report on the flaws of a hot young hitter in baseball, the word is going to get around.
Duke had both of its frontcourt players—freshman Brandon Ingram and senior Marshall Plumlee—pick up their fourth fouls with more than 10 minutes left in the second half. Ingram got his third with 1.6 seconds left in the first half, turning him into a non-factor on defense for almost the rest of the game.
Plumlee's fourth foul came with 10:27 left and Duke leading 48-40. From that point on Clemson went 9-of-14 from the field after having made just 16 of 41 shots in the first 30 minutes.
Duke isn't known for staunch defense—it came in holding opponents to 42.7 percent shooting—but it also didn't just let teams score at will. That wasn't the case once the foul trouble sunk in, when the Tigers went on a 13-2 run and kept the aggressiveness going until the end.
Fouls were a problem last week at Wake Forest, yet Duke shot 51.7 percent and won by 16 because the Demon Deacons didn't push the envelope. Clemson did, and others will follow suit.
The Blue Devils didn't help themselves by bogging down on offense in the second half, seemingly scared to drive or draw contact for fear a call would go against them. That's not normally their style, and the combination of that and the foul problems can be lethal against the wrong opponent.
It's easy to blame Jefferson's foot injury for the bulk of Duke's struggles, but the potential for a problem was already there. It's existed since Krzyzewski realized freshman forward Chase Jeter wasn't going to be able to contribute much this season, and the Blue Devils' other post players—sophomore Sean Obi and freshman Antonio Vrankovic—were just taking up space on the bench.
Jeter technically played Wednesday, but he was gone before he could do anything but collect fouls—five of them, to be exact, in just four minutes, but at least he got to take his warm-ups off.
Obi, a Rice transfer who sat out the 2014-15 season, has played 16 minutes in six games this year. Vrankovic has played 13 minutes in four outings. Only Obi has seen action in an ACC game, getting a single minute of court time last week—when Plumlee got into foul trouble—just before halftime. NBC Sports' Raphielle Johnson noted Plumlee's impact on Duke's overall performance:
Raphielle Johnson @raphiellej
Oh boy. Clemson’s got the lead now. Finding spaces in the Duke 1-3-1, but it’s not like Duke can do anything else on D w/Plumlee having 4.2016-1-14 01:30:42
On most nights, six really good players will be enough for Duke to get the job done. The Blue Devils normally play smart, not making silly fouls, and can score at will. But when the shots don't fall, they can't get to the line—the Blue Devils took a season-low seven foul shots, with their first coming midway through the second half—and the whistles are blowing, they're going to struggle.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.