Duke Basketball: Blue Devils' Biggest Storylines Ahead of UNC Showdown

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2016

Duke Basketball: Blue Devils' Biggest Storylines Ahead of UNC Showdown

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    Duke's loss Sunday at Pittsburgh eliminates it from being able to win the ACC title, but there is still a lot at stake in this final week of the regular season. The Blue Devils are fighting for position in the conference tournament in Washington, D.C., as well as for the upcoming NCAA tourney.

    They are also preparing for a second go-around with rival North Carolina, whom they rallied to beat on the road on Feb. 17 and will host in Saturday's finale.

    Those are just some of the storylines to focus on with Duke heading into that clash with the Tar Heels. Check out what fans need to be watching for.

Is Amile Jefferson Close to Returning?

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    He hasn't played since injuring his foot in mid-December, but senior forward Amile Jefferson is starting to make a move toward a possible return. He's been practicing, but according to Laura Keeley of the News & Observer, he's yet to be able to do so "without too much pain."

    Until that changes, don't expect Jefferson to be suiting up.

    Because he's only played nine games this season, Jefferson is eligible for a medical redshirt since he would have played less than one-third of the Blue Devils' games. However, as a senior (who will turn 23 in May) he'd be more valuable getting back into action in whatever manner possible this season than keeping him out until 2016-17.

Chase Jeter's Increased Involvement

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    One of four 5-star signees whom Duke brought in this season, according to 247Sports, Chase Jeter has ended up playing the role that Grayson Allen did a year ago. Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton all average at least 25 minutes per game, while Jeter has only appeared in 25 of 29 contests.

    But the 6'10" forward is starting to see his minutes go up, playing nine minutes on Sunday after logging 12 and 17 minutes against Florida State and Louisville, respectively. He's now averaging 7.7 minutes per game.

    Though the production isn't there—Jeter contributes 1.7 points and 1.9 rebounds per game—just being able to turn to him for more than just a few seconds right before TV timeouts should pay off in March. He's mostly in there to give senior center Marshall Plumlee a breather, and having Plumlee more fresh for the postseason can be very helpful.

Managing Fatigue

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    Getting Jeter a few more minutes could make him a useful fill-in off the bench over the final month of 2015-16, but one person isn't enough to solve Duke's depth issues. Particularly, the wearing down that comes from having the top six players log so much time.

    Matt Jones' one-game absence (along with missing most of the previous contest) with an ankle injury added to the fatigue issues the Blue Devils have dealt with all season. It snowballed in Sunday's 76-62 loss at Pittsburgh, with noticeable times when Duke looked too tired to be able to fight back.

    It's another quiet turnaround, with Duke's next game on Tuesday against Wake Forest, but then there are three full days off before hosting North Carolina on Saturday. And then comes the ACC tournament, which could mean as many as four games in as many days (depending on seeding) if the Blue Devils were to reach the title game.

Playing for a Double Bye

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    At 10-6 in ACC play, Duke is currently tied with Notre Dame for fifth place. However, since Louisville (which is tied for third at 11-5) isn't eligible for the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils are technically tied for fourth when it comes to tourney seeding.

    The distinction between the fourth and fifth seeds is huge, particularly for a team as thin as Duke. By finishing among the top four spots, Duke's first ACC tourney game wouldn't be until Thursday's quarterfinals. If they are seeded fifth or worst, the Blue Devils would play on Wednesday and then would need to play four consecutive days to make the ACC final.

    Depending on what happens this week, Duke could finish as high as a tie for second or as low as seventh or eighth place.

NCAA Seeding Implications

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    Even with two losses in its last three games, Duke is still in line for a fairly good seeding in the NCAA tournament. That's assuming it doesn't struggle over the final week of the regular season or make an early exit from the ACC tourney.

    Prior to Sunday's loss, BracketMatrix.com had Duke averaging a No. 3 seed based on numerous published bracket projections. The Blue Devils figure to drop a seed line because of this latest result, though the chances of ending up with a high-enough seed to warrant playing the first weekend in nearby Raleigh, North Carolina, are still strong.

    Duke has been seeded no worse than No. 3 in each of the previous eight NCAA tournaments and no worse than No. 6 over the last 20 years.

     

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.