Nothing describes the current state of Duke basketball better than the moments immediately following its game Monday at Miami. The players and coaches from each team met along the sideline to shake hands without worry of being bombarded by court-storming fans basking in a victory over the Blue Devils.
That's because beating Duke hasn't been a rare achievement in 2015-16.
Monday's 80-69 setback was the fourth in five games and sixth overall for a program that lost only four times last year en route to the national title. It has finished a season with six or fewer losses 13 times in the past two decades.
But this Blue Devils team isn't like the last one or any in recent memory. Not in its current form, and maybe not even if/when senior forward Amile Jefferson returns from a foot injury.
It's also not one that is ensured a chance to defend its championship in March.
It is time to acknowledge the possibility that Duke will not make the NCAA tournament. They need Jefferson back lickety split.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) January 26, 2016
Duke is 15-6 overall and 4-4 in the ACC. That conference record matches its worst start since 1995-96, when the Blue Devils went 18-13 and earned a No. 8 seed to the NCAA tourney. They lost by 15 points to Eastern Michigan in the first round.
Based on how this season is going, a No. 8 seed might be what Duke is headed for unless it can figure out a way to make a six-man rotation work.
Prior to Monday's loss, it was in line for a No. 6 seed based on projected fields tracked by BracketMatrix.com.
The Blue Devils now get a much-needed break to both rest their tired players and figure out how to keep this season from spiraling out of control—they could become the third defending national champion in the past five seasons to miss the NCAA tournament.
Their next game is at Georgia Tech on Feb. 2.
Monday highlighted what Duke is missing without Jefferson and also what head coach Mike Krzyzewski has accepted as truth: This is a good, yet very beatable team, one that has little margin for error.
Very matter-of-fact K. Cracked a few jokes. On Miami: "They're better than us." Pretty simple— Laura Keeley (@laurakeeley) January 26, 2016
Even still, that doesn't mean there is reason to panic. Not yet. Not unless the results start affecting future effort.
"We lost, but our kids weren't out-competed," Krzyzewski said, per Laura Keeley of the News and Observer. "I always tell my guys, you play your butts off, compete and I'm good. So I'm good. I'm good."
Jefferson was the Blue Devils' best interior defender, one who was difficult to drive on and rarely out of position. Opponents couldn't execute backdoor plays, something Miami did several times en route to 42 points in the paint.
Ideally, by now Duke would have found a way to have others account for Jefferson's absence, but it's been too tired to do so and has had to conserve most of its energy for offensive execution.
|Days Off Between Games (Record)||Field-Goal Pct.||Points Per Game|
|1 Day (0-2)||39.3 (48-of-122)||65.5|
|2 Days (2-1)||51.2 (83-of-162)||84.7|
|3+ Days (2-1)||51.8 (87-of-168)||80.7|
The Blue Devils were thin to begin with, their latest recruiting class a considerable step below the one that produced three first-round draft picks in June. Forward Chase Jeter and guard Derryck Thornton were both 5-star prospects, per 247Sports, but those ratings should have come with an asterisk.
Jeter has proved time and again he's not fast or strong enough to play meaningful minutes—his lone shot attempt Monday resulted in Miami's Tonye Jekiri rejecting him to the floor—while Thornton reclassified from the class of 2016 and should still be in high school.
Those two, who comprise the entirety of Duke's bench at this point, played 21 minutes. The starters played the other 179, doing so barely 48 hours after a hard-fought win at North Carolina State that snapped Duke's first three-game losing streak since 2006-07.
Fatigue issues have understandably popped up since Jefferson got hurt, and they have stood out most when the Blue Devils are playing on short rest.
Since ACC play began, Duke's two worst shooting performances came with only one day off between games, and its efficiency increases more the longer it has to rest.
The Blue Devils' starters are all very good, probably better than the starting five of almost every remaining ACC foe. The difference is Duke doesn't have anything beyond its starters, and thus it runs the risk of wearing down.
Being able to stay fresh, more than the quality of the opponent, will dictate how the Blue Devils navigate the rest of their games.
They have two more short breaks (Feb. 6-8 and Feb. 28-March 1) and two more stretches with two days between games (Feb. 17-20 and Feb. 25-28). The rest of their breaks are three or more days in length.
Duke has a huge four-game stretch in February during which it will face Louisville twice and Virginia and North Carolina once apiece, though with decent breaks in between. It will have four days off between home games against the Cardinals and Cavaliers, then three off days before visiting the Tar Heels and another two off before making the return trip to Louisville.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter @realBJP.