When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski looks down his bench, his options are rather limited.
The Blue Devils are down to just eight eligible scholarship players, with three reserves, so Krzyzewski has had to adjust on the fly.
“My former players, they would not believe how we practice,” he said. “Because we can’t practice that much.”
Krzyzewski must make sure his team gets the work they need but doesn’t get worn out in the process. That’s the reality as No. 4 Duke (22-3, 9-3 ACC) prepares to host No. 15 North Carolina (18-7, 8-4) on Wednesday night.
Senior Quinn Cook said this season has reminded him of his sophomore year, when Seth Curry’s stress reaction in his right shin prevented him from practicing and Ryan Kelly missed time with a broken foot. The practice routine was ad-libbed a bit then as it is now. In order to maintain the desired level of intensity, overall practice time has been cut.
Walk-ons Sean Kelly and Nick Pagliuca have started participating in 5-on-5 scrimmages – walk-ons typically don’t participate much in team drills at Duke – and Sean Obi. who is redshirting this season after transferring from Rice, has used his 6-foot-9, 270-pound frame to challenge Duke’s other big men – but not challenge too much.
“But when you have eight scholarship players, and we’re concerned about injury and wearing guys out – the first question I answered was about emotion, you’ve got to be careful how much you do that in practice,” Krzyzewski said. “How much contact do you have?
“We’ve got to be really careful. We can’t afford for anyone to get injured.”
The Blue Devils had a scare with that the Thursday before the Syracuse game. After practice, while he was just shooting, freshman Grayson Allen took a step to his left and fell to the ground in excruciating pain. He could barely walk, and he was put in a knee brace and given crutches. X-rays and MRIs were administered Friday.
“And then all of the sudden, he was okay. It was kind of a crazy thing,” Krzyzewski said. “I can’t explain what the hell happened.”
The tests revealed no structural damage in Allen’s knee, and he played eight minutes in the win against the Orange, knocking down a 3-pointer and registering two assists and a steal.
It was Allen who was most affected by Rasheed Sulaimon’s unexpected dismissal from the team on Jan. 29 – he went from averaging 6.1 minutes a game, and not playing at all in four, to 9.8 minutes and at least one appearance in all five games since.
“They didn’t really have to sit me down and have a talk with me,” Allen said of the coaches. “It was just more in practice like, look, you’re going to have to do more now. And it was a good feeling for me. It was a little bit of pressure, but it was more good pressure because I knew that I was going to need to step up.”
Duke isn’t the only team with depth issues – UNC is shorthanded in practice as well. The Tar Heels started with 16 total players, 12 on scholarship and walk-ons do participate more in practices than at Duke. Five players, including three on scholarship, are out for the season. And of the nine scholarship players left, three are limited in practice (Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, Nate Britt). Coach Roy Williams has had to have Wade Moody, a former walk-on, and a variety of other people come in to fill out practice teams.
“I’ve never had a team to have this many guys over there in warm-ups or suits during a game,” Williams said. “It has made the practices more difficult. We’ve had Wade Moody come in a couple of times, and then Spenser Dalton, one of our JV players, has come in sometimes. (Assistant) Coach (Steve) Robinson’s son, Denzel, has come in sometimes, and that’s the only way we’ve been able to get much done.”
Williams added that every team has problems at this time of year. In terms of depth, that’s an issue that both Tobacco Road teams share.