PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The cold tub is the hot place to be at Duke University right now.
That’s where the Blue Devils gather after practice to rejuvenate bodies that are redefining the meaning of “survive and advance."
Duke's roster has been tested since Amile Jefferson’s season-ending injury in December. The same team that preached “eight is enough" all the way to last year's national championship has raised the stakes on its own short-rotation game with the hope that a seven-player unit will be satisfactory.
That’s essentially all the bodies coach Mike Krzyzewski has to call on now -- and the seventh, Chase Jeter, has been a late addition plug-in only in the past month.
Is it enough? The Blue Devils are about to find out. Duke will officially kick off the NCAA tournament -- and the defense of its title -- when the fourth-seeded Blue Devils face UNC-Wilmington in the first game of the tourney.
“Most definitely it’s enough," freshman guard Brandon Ingram said. “Everybody in this room can play."
Perhaps, but few have been chosen.
Ingram, Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Marshall Plumlee, Luke Kennard, a sprinkling of Jeter and Derryck Thornton and the rare but occasional dash of Sean Obi have essentially been the entirety of Duke’s roster since Jefferson’s injury.
There has been a heavy emphasis on Ingram and Allen. The two have been the Blue Devils’ pack mules, virtually carrying their team to the postseason. Allen has played fewer than 30 minutes in just one of 24 games since Jefferson's injury -- and that was a 105-66 blowout win against Elon. Four times he has stayed in for the entire 40 minutes, and in last week’s ACC tournament semifinal, he was on the court for 44 of the 45 minutes (including overtime) against Notre Dame.
Ingram, meanwhile, has matched Allen nearly stride for stride, playing less than 30 minutes just twice since Jefferson’s injury.
The two insist they are neither sore nor tired, but when asked to explain how they're able to repeat the marathon game after game, their litany of repair remedies is one Icy Hot treatment away from hitting for a middle-aged-athlete cycle.
“Extra treatment, whether that’s the cold tub, extra stretching or any kind of extra body muscle work with our trainers," Allen said. “Hydrating outside of practice, making sure we eat enough and sleep has been really big as well."
He forgot one thing.
“Recovery shakes," Ingram added.
Ah, the glamour of a college athlete’s life: Eat your veggies, drink your milk and get your rest.
So far, at least, the plan has worked. Duke certainly isn't as dominant as it was a year ago, but the survivalists are surviving. The Blue Devils owned an 8-1 record when Jefferson was shut down, and they stretched it to 14-2 to start the ACC season. Then Duke promptly lost four of its next five, stumbling to a 4-4 start in league play, and was staring down a gauntlet of Louisville, Virginia, North Carolina and Louisville again.
The Devils won all but one of those games, proving that what they lacked in numbers they made up for in gumption.
“That took a lot out of our team," Krzyzewski said. “But it also did a lot for our team, because when you play at that level and fight and are successful, you get to a level of confidence that really made us an NCAA team. People would say, ‘Well, you should always be an NCAA team,’ but we had to earn it.’’
Getting in the tournament and staying in, though, are two different animals. This tourney is a quick-turn sprint as much as a three-week marathon, and the Blue Devils will begin it by facing a team that would love nothing more than to exhaust them. UNC-Wilmington coach Kevin Keatts has stolen a page from the playbook of his mentor, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, fashioning a team that loves to press and cause disruption. Opponents cough up the ball an average of 15 times against the Seahawks.
“Because we’re a pressing team, everyone says that’s to our advantage, and certainly I hope it is," Keatts said. “But I would caution people that we’re not playing them on the second or third day of the tournament. We’re playing them on the first day, and certainly they’ve had time to rest. I hope that our press comes into play. I hope that we can wear them down. But I think they’re in good shape because you learn how to play with six or seven guys throughout the season."
That’s exactly what Krzyzewski is counting on. He has managed to patchwork and piecemeal his rotation, relying as much on the Blue Devils’ savvy as their stamina.
In the ACC tournament against Notre Dame, virtually everyone on the roster was saddled with foul trouble -- so much so that Krzyzewski pressed Obi into service for the first time since late January -- yet the Blue Devils scratched and clawed their way from down 16 to overtime.
“I think mentally we’re good," Krzyzewski said. “We’re ready to go. We’re ready to go. Whoever this team is, it’s as good as it’s been all season since Amile. And that’s where you want to be at this time of the year. They’re a good group. They’re a tight group. Let’s go."
And if all goes well for the Blue Devils, they’ll meet back at the cold tub ready to recover for another game.