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Valiant in defeat, No. 17 Duke hurt by lack of interior options

Feb 1, 2014, 9:46 PM EST

krzyzewski Getty Images

The hype for Saturday’s game between No. 17 Duke and No. 2 Syracuse was immense, and in situations such as this one it seems near impossible for the matchup to live up to the pre game chatter. But the Blue Devils and Orange lived up to the hype and then some, playing the most exciting 45 minutes of basketball we’ve seen to this point in the season.

C.J. Fair scored the last of his career-high 28 points with a free throw just over five seconds remaining in overtime, giving Syracuse the 91-89 victory and moving the Orange to 21-0 (8-0 ACC). Duke, with its capable three-point shooters, attacked the Syracuse zone in a way that most teams are dissuaded from doing. While they did manage to work the ball inside, scoring 32 points in the paint, the Blue Devils did much of their damage from beyond the arc.

Of Duke’s 72 field goal attempts half of them were three-pointers, with the Blue Devils making 15 of those 36 shots. Those long shots resulted in rebounding opportunities for a Duke team that isn’t deep inside and they took advantage, rebounding nearly 41% of their misses and scoring 22 second-chance points.

Much of that was done by Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson, who grabbed 11 of those offensive rebounds and proved once again to be the best that Duke has inside when it comes to front court “muscle.” So with this being the case, obviously it was a big deal when both fouled out late in regulation. With those two unavailable head coach Mike Krzyzewski went with his shooters in hopes of getting a mismatch in his favor on the offensive end of the floor.

The problem with this move: there was no one on the floor capable of guarding Jerami Grant.

Grant converted multiple dunks in overtime, with Duke ultimately being forced to bring in Marshall Plumlee for a defensive possession. Plumlee played a total of ten minutes, grabbing two rebounds, as neither he nor Josh Hairston have been able to do enough over the course of ACC play to earn a spot in the rotation. And therein lies the problem for this Duke team when it comes to considering their prospects not only within the ACC but also in regards to their national hopes.

Jefferson’s been very good for Duke over the last 14 games, and against Syracuse the sophomore accounted for 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists. At this point it seems safe to assume that he and Parker (15 points, nine rebounds) will be Duke’s most productive front court players for the remainder of the season. But if this team is to entertain any thoughts of climbing back into the ACC race (remember, they get Syracuse at home in three weeks), they need someone else in the front court to step up and earn minutes.

However with this being the case, do they have a third player capable of doing so? Even with this dilemma Duke nearly left the Carrier Dome with a win, so they clearly can make adjustments. But against teams with the ability to exploit this deficiency, Duke will continue to have issues if a Plumlee or Hairston (or both) doesn’t step up in the coming weeks.

In a game as entertaining as this one, it’s tough to pinpoint an area in which the losing team cost itself the game. But there’s no doubt that Duke’s lack of interior depth impacted their strategy in overtime.