NEW YORK — With two games a week during the regular season, Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s preference to play a seven-man rotation works well and is time-tested.
A short bench may create challenges in Brooklyn, though, because — for a second consecutive season — Duke will need to win four games in four days to earn the ACC championship. Last season, that pursuit ended with the second game.
The well-rested No. 14 Blue Devils weren’t let off easy before they finally put away that first victory on Wednesday, as Clemson rallied late before Duke advanced with a 79–72 victory. There was no blowout to allow the regulars more rest.
Nobody will be pushed more than All-ACC guard Luke Kennard, who has been on the bench for only eight minutes of the Blue Devils’ last seven games and has played all 40 minutes four times since January.
“This is a process. To play back-to-back days, it can be tough,” said Kennard, who scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half. “But for us as a group, we take it very seriously and try to take care of our bodies as best as we can. For us, we just need to move on to the next one.”
Three of Duke’s eight losses have come with two or fewer days between games, including N.C. State when the Blue Devils had only one day of rest after beating Miami. Eight Duke players have played double-digit minutes only twice in ACC games, and one of those was in the loss to the Wolfpack.
Fatigue can set in, as it did a year ago when Duke couldn’t hold a lead against Notre Dame in the quarterfinals, its second game of the tournament, before losing in overtime 84–79. Grayson Allen admitted that fatigue was a big factor.
“I think so, I think toward the end of the game, we ran out of gas a little bit. But, really, in that game, we just needed to put them away because we had the lead,” said Allen, who was scoreless in 12 minutes.“This team will be prepared to do that if we’re in that position.
“I think even though we don’t go very deep, I think we can if we need to be,” Allen said. “Our bigs can go deep and our guards can go deep and Jayson [Tatum] can move to the guard. We have a lot of variations that we can put in there, and we’ll have enough energy to play.”
But even if the Blue Devils can come back 24 hours later against No. 10 Louisville, which will be well-rested, how much would they have in the tank for games Friday and Saturday?
“We had only one game guaranteed, so that’s how we were looking at it. If we make it to the fourth game, I’ll have the answer to the question then,” Allen said. “Thankfully with an early game, we get a lot of time to get recovery in today. Ice and stretch and extra stuff we need to do. Really just prepare to go tomorrow. It’s really simple, there’s not a lot to it.”
Are the Blue Devils better prepared for that short turnaround than they were last season? Matt Jones is hopeful.
“Maybe,” he said. “We have a lot of young guys. Obviously, there’s a lot of wear and tear, but Coach does a good job of allowing us to stay off our feet and be as fresh as possible for the next games. He’s been through this many times, we have a lot of veterans who have been through this many times so I mean we just kind of let that carry over.”
Proper pacing may be helpful for a marathoner but Amile Jefferson, who scored
11 points in 31 minutes, doesn’t want that applied to basketball, even with the potential of games four consecutive days.
“For our guys who play extended minutes, it’s just about everybody being ready to go,” Jefferson said. “Don’t pace. One game at a time. Blow it out, try to win, rest and onto the next.”
Until foul trouble limited Tatum to 30 minutes in the loss at North Carolina, he had been on the bench for one minute of the previous three games. Against Clemson, he played
“Try to stay fresh, refuel, get ice,” Tatum said. “A lot of other guys are going to have to step up this week depending on how far we go, we’re going to need 14 guys instead of seven. We’re going to have some other guys step up big.”
Playing 14 players seems unlikely since Duke has played at least 10 players only three times against ACC opponents. But other contributions will be even more important against the Cardinals.
How short is Duke’s bench? Both Allen and Jefferson pointed to the two minutes of playing time from Antonio Vrankovic, his first action since Jan. 30, as being important.
“Today, Antonio Vrankovic came in and gave us great minutes,” Jefferson said of the sophomore who played one game between Dec. 3 and Jan. 28. “I think when he came in, we were down four, and at halftime it was a tie game. That’s what you want when guys come off the bench for them to have a positive impact on the game.”
Wednesday was a reminder of why some Blue Devils don’t generally play that much. Freshman Marques Bolden matched his playing time from the previous two games with his three minutes against Clemson, and had a careless turnover and no points.
Probably the most important contribution will come from freshman Frank Jackson, who scored 20 points and continues to pick up the slack with Allen still slowed by nagging injuries.
As they were walking off the court Wednesday, Krzyzewski told Jackson, “You’re going to be the key for us. You know that, right?”
For Jackson as well, rest will be important. He tied his season high with 35 minutes, equaling his total against Penn State in November.
Thursday, they take the next step to prove that the lack of rest for a team with a short bench won’t make their stay in Brooklyn short.