Should Duke stay in Top 25?
DURHAM, N.C. >> None of Duke's players have gone through anything like this at the school.
The 24th-ranked Blue Devils are mired in their worst slump in nearly a decade. The reigning national champs have dropped four of five and are in danger of dropping out of the national rankings for the first time since 2007.
"We have to get wins, and we have to get them fast," guard Matt Jones said Thursday. "The sense of urgency in practice has to heighten, and it has been."
It's been an uncharacteristically tough stretch for the Blue Devils (15-6, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference), who have won two national titles since they last lost this frequently. With no games until next week, they're putting the focus on self-improvement.
Guard Grayson Allen said "it's just keeping a tremendous belief in" Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski because "he's been through it all."
The first three losses of this slump all were one-possession games in the final minute but after the last one, an 80-69 setback at Miami earlier this week, Krzyzewski said the Hurricanes "were better than we were."
The Blue Devils knew they were in for some rough patches after losing four starters from the most recent national title team — including three one-and-done freshmen — and asking two newcomers to play key roles this time around.
Only two returning players logged significant minutes during the entirety of last season. When one of them was injured last month, things got much tougher.
High-energy forward Amile Jefferson was lost indefinitely with a broken foot just nine games into the season and Duke is just 7-5 without him. Krzyzewski said Jefferson, who averaged a double-double before his injury, is making progress but still does not have a timetable for a return.
Jefferson's absence has put even more stress on an already thin rotation that's now effectively down to six players. In each of the four most recent losses, the seventh man — either freshman Chase Jeter or transfer Sean Obi — played no more than four minutes while the other one played even less, or not at all. Jeter needed just four minutes to foul out of the loss at Clemson that started this slide.
That's put the Blue Devils in a tricky spot. They're confident that Jefferson will make them a better team when he returns, yet when that happens mindful of not putting too much pressure on him to save the season.
"Nobody around him is putting that pressure on him to come back and kind of be like, 'You're the savior,"' Jones said. "We can win without Amile. We can win with Amile. Right now, we have to win without Amile."
In another sign of the team's youth, it's playing a point guard that could still be in high school: freshman Derryck Thornton reclassified his class status and came to school a year ahead of schedule.
It's added up to their worst stretch since they dropped four in a row to end the 2006-07 season. That's also the last time they dropped out of the Top 25 — though that appears likely to change next week when the votes are counted again. With no game until a visit to Georgia Tech next Tuesday night, Duke doesn't have that last chance to make an impression on the voters the way it did in beating North Carolina State last weekend.
The schedule's only going to get tougher.
In mid-February, Duke will play four straight games against nationally ranked teams, with a home-and-home with No. 16 Louisville sandwiching matchups with No. 11 Virginia and at No. 2 North Carolina. The Tar Heels also visit for the annual regular-season finale in March.
"We're approaching this with a positive attitude, but we've got to keep working," Allen said. "This week is about improving ourselves."
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