Luke DeCock

Duke not only relying on its freshmen for scoring, but leadership as well

Duke’s Coach K on victory over Wake Forest: ‘We were fortunate in the last play... I don’t think we were fortunate to win’

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talks about the victory by the Blue Devils over the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, March 5, 2019.
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Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talks about the victory by the Blue Devils over the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

It was just luck, really, the same luck that evaded Duke in Omaha last spring bouncing back the other way. Chaundee Brown’s putback at the buzzer rimmed out, just like the Grayson Allen layup that would have sent Duke to the Final Four, and if it had gone to replay it might not have counted anyway, although even that’s hard to say. It was that close.

And Wake Forest was that close to pulling off an upset that was considered more than 99 percent unlikely. Duke won, 71-70, but the Blue Devils’ struggle to put away the Demon Deacons highlighted two stark realities about this particular team: Duke definitely does miss Zion Williamson, and this was the kind of game where Duke really needed a vocal leader to take charge.

When a few players were asked afterward if anyone stepped forward to speak in the most desperate moments – whether that was during the timeout after Wake Forest took a 10-point lead early in the second half or in the moments after Jack White stepped across the end line with the ball with seven seconds to go, gifting Wake Forest an unexpected chance to win – the answer was the same: Everyone.

“When we’re out on the court, it’s everybody,” Javin DeLaurier said. “We’re all talking to each other, looking each other in the eye like men.

“I wouldn’t single out any one person,” Alex O’Connell said. “When we get into those huddles we’re all talking to each other, trying to pick each other up. There’s no one guy.”

“Really, everybody’s out there communicating with each other,” R.J. Barrett said. “Sure, when Tre (Jones) or Jack or myself or anybody gets talking down at the end, it’s great.”

Watch a time-lapse of the last seven seconds of Duke's victory over Wake Forest at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Wake Forest attempted two shots which both missed in the Blue Devils' 71-70 victory.

That’s all well and good, but sometimes when it comes to leadership, everyone usually means no one.

And on a team where Antonio Vrankovic is the only scholarship senior, comparisons to the 2015 team may ring true when it comes to the freshmen and their bond and their talent but fall short when it comes to the senior leadership that team got from Quinn Cook, whose memories of Lehigh and Mercer were all too pungent.

In this Zion-less stretch, it’s a fair question to ask where the leadership will come from when times get tough, when the Blue Devils are up against it, whether that was Tuesday or will be next week in Charlotte or down the road.

In an alternate universe, it might have been Luke Kennard, whose leadership and 3-point shooting would have filled voids for this team if he had stuck around for four years instead of getting too good, too fast.

Some of the older players may have the right personality – DeLaurier in particular – but don’t have a big enough role. The burden of leadership is going to fall on those on the court, and almost all of the time that’s going to be the four freshmen, with Williamson and Jones the most suited for it based on the evidence so far.

Which isn’t really fair, no matter how talented or charismatic they may be, even when Williamson and Jones are healthy, which neither was Tuesday. It’s a lot to ask of players going through this for the first time, even those as composed and poised as Barrett and Williamson and Jones are, and the postseason is a completely different animal even for veterans.

At this point in the season, it’s the one thing that’s still an open question for Duke, the one thing still missing – other than Williamson, that is.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski updates the status of Zion Williamson after the Blue Devils' victory over Wake Forest at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

Wake Forest put up spirited resistance against the Zion-less Blue Devils, who were all too prone to bad decisions, whether that was ill-advised lobs or Cam Reddish’s three first-half charges. Duke probably expected to be up double digits at the half but quickly found itself down by double digits early in the second.

Duke is still mostly Duke without Williamson, but with Williamson on the bench in street clothes and Reddish there in foul trouble and Jones and Bolden dealing with injuries Tuesday, Duke wasn’t even close to Duke.

There’s the running joke about Duke’s bench being short only by choice, but this team does start running out of McDonald’s all-Americans when Williamson and Bolden – who left the game for good early in the second half – are removed from the mix and Reddish is struggling and Jones is in and out. Jordan Goldwire, who helped save Duke at Louisville, did more of the same Tuesday, but it’s hard to ask him to do that all the time.

“Playing with not a full deck has been very difficult,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Our guys, we thought it was going to be easier, and when it wasn’t, we’re not old enough and we (haven’t) played together enough where you have all your pieces where then you can just move them around.”

That talent has been able to pull the Blue Devils through most nights, but it isn’t everything. Who’s going to be there at the end to rally them if there’s a rematch with Gonzaga? Who’s going to do it if they have to face the Tar Heels again without Williamson again? Duke needed that person Tuesday, and only by a carom off the rim did the Blue Devils avoid a historic upset.

Just because that person isn’t apparent at the moment doesn’t mean they won’t be there at the end, but Duke needs to figure out who that’s going to be sooner rather than later. As of Tuesday night, the Blue Devils are still looking.

It may yet be a freshman, Williamson or Jones. But the answer can’t be everyone. It has to be someone.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.