The true measure of how much Duke has struggled recently arrived immediately after its 80-69 loss at Miami on Monday night.
Beating the hated Blue Devils was routine enough for the 15th-ranked Hurricanes that their student section didn't even bother to storm the court.
With the pillars of last year's national championship team in the NBA and next year's star-studded recruiting class not set to arrive for another eight months, Duke is not the juggernaut this season that it is most years. The 24th-ranked Blue Devils have lost four out of their last five games and are just 7-5 since starting power forward Amile Jefferson suffered a right foot injury in mid-December.
Duke's latest loss puts the Blue Devils in major jeopardy of falling out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since Feb. 2007. Their 4-4 league record is their worst at this juncture of ACC play since the injury-battered 1996 team started 3-5 against conference opponents en route to an 18-13 record and a loss in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
A similar fate could await Duke this March if Jefferson either cannot return or comes back at less than full strength. Many of the Blue Devils' litany of issues stem from his absence.
Without Jefferson, Duke only goes six deep this season and has no interior depth. Starters Brandon Ingram and Marshall Plumlee both play nearly 40 minutes per game these days because Mike Krzyzewski apparently does not trust any of his reserve big men to play meaningful minutes in ACC play.
The combination of a lack of size and rim protection besides Plumlee and guards who struggle to stay in front of their man off the dribble has left Duke vulnerable defensively. The Blue Devils entered Monday's game 133rd nationally in KenPom's defensive efficiency rankings because they don't stop dribble penetration, they don't close out on shooters quickly enough and they give up far too many offensive rebounds.
With a shorthanded bench, only two days rest between games and a team that has struggled to defend in man-to-man, Krzyzewski chose to put aside his long-established preferences and play mostly zone against Miami. The plan worked for awhile as Plumlee stayed out of foul trouble and the Hurricanes settled for too many first-half jump shots, but eventually Miami figured out how to attack it.
Sometimes it was Angel Rodriguez attacking cracks in the zone off the dribble, forcing the defense to collapse and finding teammates left free. Other times it was Ja'Quan Newton catching entry passes in the high post, surveying the defense and finding the open man. Rodriguez and Newton combined for 16 assists, with Sheldon McClellan (21 points) being the most frequent benefactor.
Duke's offense has been explosive all season in spite of the lack of a true point guard, but the Blue Devils could not keep up with Miami's torrid second-half shooting. Ingram had an efficient 19 points and Grayson Allen added 17, but no other Duke players scored more than 10.
While Miami (16-3, 5-2) can still dream of challenging North Carolina for the ACC title, Duke (15-6, 4-4) probably now has to lower its sights. The Blue Devils need to tread water until Jefferson returns sometime next month and then hope they can still be dangerous in March.
Duke was 8-1 until Jefferson went down including a 20-point throttling of Indiana. The Blue Devils aren't nearly as menacing without him, as evidenced by the Miami students filing out of the BankUnited Center in orderly fashion at the buzzer on Monday night.
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