Duke shows it could survive without Jahlil Okafor

DURHAM, N.C. -- By now, Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor's résumé should be well-known. He's the projected No. 1 overall pick for the 2015 NBA draft. He's a front-runner for all the national player of the year awards. He's the best college big man since Anthony Davis carried Kentucky to the 2012 national title.

But Duke doesn't need him to survive.

Take a deep breath for a second and understand, that's not to say the Blue Devils are better off without him.

"Jah[lil] is our best player, obviously and everything goes through him, but we have a lot of talent on this team," freshman point guard Tyus Jones said. "Guys are just ready to step up when their name is called."

Okafor hasn't fouled out of a game this season. The Blue Devils have rarely had to play for long stretches without him. The only time he played just 23 minutes, as he did against Notre Dame, was in the season-opening 113-44 win over Presbyterian.

But there will come a game when Okafor can't be relied upon. Maybe it will happen as the Blue Devils close out the regular season trying to capture their first ACC regular-season title since 2010. Maybe it will happen in the NCAA tournament.

Okafor will be in foul trouble like he was Saturday against Notre Dame, or he'll simply be struggling to be effective.

What fourth-ranked Duke showed in the first half of its 90-60 blowout of No. 10 Notre Dame is it can still win when that game inevitably happens.

"We know this isn't a one-dimensional team," Okafor said. "I guess today in the first half, the country got to see that, but we've been aware of that."

Sophomore guard Matt Jones is rounding into the shooter many thought he'd be out of high school. He scored 15 of his career-high 17 points against Notre Dame in the first half and is shooting 36 percent from behind the arc after making just 3 of 21 attempts last season.

Freshman forward Justise Winslow posted his third straight double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds against the Irish. He finally feels healthy again after battling rib and shoulder problems at the start of ACC play.

Senior guard Quinn Cook has established himself as the bona fide leader, especially after the dismissal of junior Rasheed Sulaimon following Duke's loss at Notre Dame.

Tyus Jones, in wins at Virginia and Wisconsin, has shown a penchant for making big shots.

And in a season when scoring is at a premium, a Blue Devils small lineup that would feature those four players is as good as any with Marshall Plumlee at center or Amile Jefferson.

Notre Dame, Villanova and Iowa State, among others, have proved that a perimeter-oriented team with a bunch of shooters can hang with the elites. Few teams have a group as athletic and that can shoot as well as these four for Duke.

Cook leads the team shooting 38 percent from behind the arc, but Tyus Jones (37 percent) and Winslow (36 percent) aren't far behind. Winslow is also as versatile as they come in putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim.

The knock had been the Blue Devils couldn't stop dribble penetration and had a hard time defending ball screens. But that same team that couldn’t stop anybody from getting in the lane put the clamps on arguably the best player in the league at getting there in Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant.

"To be honest, this is the defense that coach [Mike Krzyzewski] envisioned us playing the whole year," Winslow said. "This type of intensity, shutting teams down with the athletes we have."

No one is questioning that Okafor is the Blue Devils' most dominant player. As a testament to his talent, he still ended up leading the team with 20 points and added 10 rebounds despite playing just eight minutes in the first half. His impact is felt by Duke well beyond his season averages of 18 points and nine rebounds.

His presence is the central focus of an opponent's defensive game plan. He commands double, sometimes triple-teams that create many open looks for his teammates.

"The biggest thing is that every game teams change what they do in particular to stop him," Jefferson said. "He draws so much attention he makes shots easier for other people."

There really hasn't been much time to appreciate what those other people would do without their 6-foot-11 center on the floor. That is, until Okafor picked up his second foul against the Fighting Irish while Duke maintained a 17-9 lead.

While he watched the remaining 12 minutes of the first half from the bench, Duke extended its lead to 30 points, effectively deciding the game's outcome.

"We haven't executed that way in a long time, it was almost -- perfect," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It was so good, it was just so good."

In this particular matchup, Krzyzewski said it helped that the Irish use a four-guard lineup and their offense doesn't rely on a big post presence.

But realistically, there are few teams in the country that have a big man -- Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and Kentucky's stable of bigs come to mind -- that the offense begins through. So in most games, the Blue Devils can still key on shooters without having to worry about getting burned inside without Okafor.

Of course, Duke surely doesn't want to rely on winning without him. But it proved that it can survive without him if it comes to that.

"It gives us ultimate confidence, confidence to know that we can play against anybody, anywhere," Matt Jones said. "We have winners and competitors and ultimately if we play like that the whole year, we have a chance to be that team come April."