Duke Basketball: 5 Burning Questions for Remainder of Blue Devils' Season
Duke's basketball team, for lack of a better term, is reeling. Monday's 64-62 loss to Syracuse was its third in a row and second straight at Cameron Indoor Stadium—skids that haven't occurred since the 2006-07 season.
That was also the last time the Blue Devils weren't ranked, a streak that figures to come to an end when next week's Associated Press Top 25 is released.
At 14-5 overall and 3-3 in the ACC, Duke is trending downward right before it sets out on a three-game road trip—the longest of its season—that begins Saturday at North Carolina State.
Is Duke headed for a lost season, or can it get things turned around before the ACC and NCAA tournaments in March? That's one of many burning questions it faces for the remainder of the 2015-16 season.
How Soon Can Amile Jefferson Return?
Amile Jefferson injured his right foot in a practice on Dec. 12, and the initial diagnosis was he'd be out at least a month. That's since changed to the vague “out indefinitely,” with no idea of when he'll be able to return.
Every game Duke plays without Jefferson is one where it will be severely hampered by not having his ability to rebound. The 6'9" senior forward was averaging 10.3 rebounds along with 11.4 points, and his 43 offensive boards in just nine games are still second-most on the team.
Duke was dominated on the boards by Syracuse, giving up 22 offensive rebounds. Brandon Ingram doesn't have the knack for pulling down missed shots like Jefferson did, and Marshall Plumlee can only do so much on his own.
Is Chase Jeter a Lost Cause?
Amile Jefferson's injury accentuated an already existing problem with depth, particularly in the frontcourt, where 6'9” freshman Brandon Ingram has been forced to play out of position at the 4. He's averaged 35.8 minutes per game since the move, while center Marshall Plumlee has already logged 162 more minutes than in 2014-15.
And the reason for this is because coach Mike Krzyzewski has absolutely no faith in any of his other frontcourt options. Most notably, 6'10" freshman Chase Jeter has almost disappeared from the playing rotation.
Jeter has played 25 minutes in five ACC games, not seeing the floor on Monday. Instead Krzyzewski went to sophomore Sean Obi, who's only made eight appearances this season, when he wanted to give Plumlee a quick breather in the first half.
"I don't envy Coach K's Chase Jeter dilemma," Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg wrote. "Nowhere near ready, but Duke desperately needs quality depth. Can't develop if he doesn't play."
Can Duke Defend Without Fouling?
The main contribution forwards Chase Jeter and Sean Obi have provided, when they get to play, has been using up their fouls to save Duke's other six players from getting in foul trouble. But getting whistled is still a problem for the Blue Devils, and it's impacting their ability to defend when they're afraid to make contact.
The Blue Devils can take some risks on the perimeter in an effort to force a turnover and start a fast break, but when opponents go inside, they can almost drive and shoot at will. If Brandon Ingram and Marshall Plumlee get saddled with early foul trouble, they lose their edge.
Duke is going to zone as much as possible to avoid fouling, but that doesn't match up well against opponents who aren't willing to settle for jumpers.
Can Derryck Thornton Be Trusted?
Derryck Thornton recently dropped out of the starting lineup in place of fellow freshman guard Luke Kennard, this coming after he was a combined 8-of-28 from the field in his previous three games. But while Kennard still logged starter-like minutes as a reserve, Thornton has played 14 and 22 minutes off the bench.
Despite being the only true point guard on the roster, Thornton's role as a ball-handler has been going down on an almost nightly basis. And without being that great of a shooter—his 39.2 percent shooting rate is worst on the team—he seems to be a player without a purpose on a team that needs every capable contributor.
Thornton did come up with two big three-pointers late in Monday's loss, but is that what he's going to become? And can he do this without turning the ball over, as his 16.8 percent turnover rate, according to Sports-Reference.com, is only better than Chase Jeter.
What Seed Are the Blue Devils Looking At?
The last time Duke was mired in a slump like this, in 2006-07, it ended up getting seeded sixth in the NCAA tournament. It then lost to No. 11 VCU in the first round, the first time the Blue Devils fell to a double-digit seed since 1997.
That might be the low end of the seeding spectrum for Duke, unless its season falls apart. More likely it will be something like the No. 4 seed that BracketMatrix.com has it averaging among various projections.
Eerily, Duke's season results are tracking very similar to 2013-14. As Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller noted, that season the Blue Devils lost by double digits in the Champions Classic and to a Pac-12 team on a neutral court. Then their first three ACC losses were to Clemson, Notre Dame and Syracuse.
How'd that season end up? Duke got a No. 3 seed, but No. 14 Mercer upset the Blue Devils.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.