Commentary

Losing Jones too much to overcome

Duke loses second point guard to injury in as many months

Originally Published: February 24, 2014
By Graham Hays | espnW.com

When the camera found Alexis Jones on the bench late in Sunday's game against Notre Dame, the tears made you think she knew. The arm wrapped around her shoulder by Chelsea Gray lent itself to easy interpretation, one injured All-American consoling or calming a teammate whose climb toward those accolades is now on hold.

And now we know, too, that Jones suffered a torn ACL in her left knee and will miss the remainder of the season.

What it means for Duke: They won't stop trying and they aren't bereft of talent, but the Blue Devils don't come back from this. Not when it comes to their aspirations to get back to a Final Four and compete for a national title.

A week ago, we looked at the case for Connecticut carrying on as a favorite without Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. This isn't that. For one thing. Connecticut already had a decent lead on the rest of the country, save perhaps Notre Dame. And the way the pieces fit together for the Huskies makes it possible to cover for some of what was lost.

By contrast, the Blue Devils just took a hit where they could least afford it.

The team's two best offensive players are at their best when posting up, in the case of Elizabeth Williams, or spotting up, in the case of Tricia Liston. In both cases, someone needs to pass them the ball to reward those efforts.

Duke is now without 270 of its 500 assists this season, not to mention nearly a quarter of its points. Assuming the list of those absent continues to include Chloe Wells, the toll grows to 61 percent of the team's assists this season. The team's two best offensive players are at their best when posting up, in the case of Elizabeth Williams, or spotting up, in the case of Tricia Liston. In both cases, someone needs to pass them the ball to reward those efforts.

Liston has demonstrated during both of Gray's injury absences that she is more than just a spot-up shooter, but she will now have to not only look to score more but be perhaps the primary playmaker and ballhandler who creates chances for others. That's going to take its toll physically, even if some sort of rotation with Haley Peters and Richa Jackson develops. Gray and Jones had 125 more assists than turnovers between them. The rest of the roster has 112 more turnovers than assists.

And without Jones, Gray and Wells, Duke's roster beyond Liston accounts for exactly 29 3-pointers. So good luck preventing opponents from collapsing on Williams.

Duke should still have enough to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, but that would be small consolation for a team that began the season with such high hopes of playing beyond that. In the long run, the bigger issue might be the timetable for Jones returning at some point next season and making a run in Williams' final season.

What it means for the rest of the ACC: The doom and gloom above aside, Duke doesn't suddenly become a WNIT team without Jones. It still has Williams and Liston, and it still has some size to spare. But if you're a top-tier opponent like Maryland, North Carolina or NC State looking at playing a potential ACC tournament semifinal against Duke as currently constituted or one against Notre Dame, you are looking at a gulf at least as big as that in the Pac-12 with Stanford and the second seed there.

As it stands now, Duke would still be the No. 2 seed in Greensboro, N.C., as it holds a one-game lead on both Maryland and NC State for that position. As long as it beats Wake Forest at home on Thursday, the No. 2 seed will remain in its grasp.

The beneficiary could be Maryland, currently in fourth position but which can lock up at least the No. 3 seed if it beats Virginia Tech and Boston College, and NC State loses to either Notre Dame or, less likely, Pittsburgh.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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