Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Duke seems to have finally found its footing without Amile Jefferson, and the Blue Devils might be a factor in the postseason with or without him. However, there was a period when Jefferson's absence made the Blue Devils look lost, putting them in danger of not making the NCAA tournament. Even now Duke is not the imposing team it would be if Jefferson were back in the lineup.
The question of if and when Jefferson will return this season continues to linger. Jefferson broke his foot on Dec. 12, and it seems he is still far from returning. The Raleigh News & Observer's Laura Keeley reported on Feb. 14 that Duke is not yet considering redshirting Jefferson, but the pain is still significant enough to limit his rehabilitation.
His loss robs Duke of a number of important ingredients.
First of all, Jefferson is a senior in his third year as a starter, and he is the only returning starter from last year's national championship team. That kind of experience is invaluable.
Second, he is averaging 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds in his nine games. He is by far the team's top rebounder, and he provides some inside muscle and scoring in the paint that the Blue Devils are lacking otherwise.
Finally, he gives the Blue Devils a bit of depth. They are basically playing just six players without him and were down to five against Louisville on Saturday when Matt Jones was out with ankle injury. The Duke players were clearly tired at the end of the Louisville game, as they let a 13-point, second-half lead slip away in a 71-64 loss.
With Jefferson in the lineup, Duke was ranked No. 7 with an 8-1 record, losing only to Kentucky and beating Indiana by 20 points. Following Jefferson's injury, the Blue Devils lost five of their next 12 games, including a stretch of four losses in five games that dropped them completely out of the top 25. At 15-6 and 4-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Duke was in trouble, and omission from the NCAA tournament seemed possible.
Since then, the Blue Devils have rebounded nicely, thanks to the consistent scoring of Grayson Allen, the improvement of freshman Brandon Ingram, an occasional boost from freshman Luke Kennard and a few subtle adjustments on defense. They have won five of their past six games, including wins over Louisville, Virginia and North Carolina, and losing only that game at Louisville.
However, without Jefferson, this team still has noticeable shortcomings in the interior and may wear down in the final weeks. Its postseason hopes are limited unless Jefferson returns and can play effectively.