Get all of Pete Thamel’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — With less than three minutes remaining in the first half on Saturday, Grayson Allen drained a jumper to give No. 4 Duke a 27-point lead over No. 12 Yale. He’d scored 22 points in the game’s first 17 minutes and appeared to be in such a zone that Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski later joked his sophomore guard was in “La La Land.”
With less than a minute remaining in the game, that 27-point lead seemed like it happened during Jay Bilas’s playing career. After Duke senior center Marshall Plumlee accidentally tipped in a Yale free throw miss, the Bulldogs found themselves down by just three points with 39 seconds remaining. They’d gone from being blown off the floor to threatening the biggest comeback in NCAA tournament history.
Duke settled down to restore order and topple Yale 71–64. But amid the frenetic extremes of a first-half blowout and a second-half meltdown, Duke showcased its potential and flaws. These Blue Devils are viable and vulnerable, with enough talent to defend their national title but enough holes to get outclassed in the West Regional in Anaheim, Calif. (They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 Oregon and No. 8 St. Joseph’s).
Duke is equal parts ability and fragility. It has two of the country’s best players in potential No. 1 NBA draft pick, freshman forward Brandon Ingram, and first-team All-ACC guard Allen. But there’s a precipitous drop off after that duo—especially at point guard and in the post. Krzyzewski concedes that the Blue Devils are essentially a six-man team. Last year’s motto was “Eight is Enough,” a nod to the thin rotation on Duke’s title team. This year, Duke is attempting not to get Deep Sixed. “Our house is on a cliff, and we hope it doesn’t rain,” he said. “That’s who we’ve been.”
Duke’s performance offered a microcosm of its season. The Blue Devils that torched Yale in the first half were the same team that ran off consecutive wins over Louisville, Virginia and at North Carolina in mid-February. That Duke team is crisp on offense, assertive in man-to-man defense and is illuminated by superstars. Then there are the second-half Blue Devils. They struggled with the Yale press, got outmuscled in the post and resembled the team that sputtered through a three-game stretch where they lost at Clemson and then at home to Syracuse and Notre Dame in mid-January. “That’s who we’ve been all year,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said. “There’s times we’ve put it all together. But can we sustain that? The first 17 minutes of the game, we were awesome. In the second half, it was everything.”
But Duke stayed composed when it mattered, a good sign for a young team that lost three one-and-done players to the NBA draft last year. Krzyzewski pulled the right strings down the stretch, including switching to a 1-3-1 zone that stalled Yale’s momentum. He also pounded the ball to Ingram in the waning minutes. Krzyzewski left the game impressed by Ingram’s work at the top of the 1-3-1 zone to rattle Yale point guard Makai Mason, as the zone changed the game just enough to allow Duke to hold on.
After Duke lost senior forward Amile Jefferson to a foot injury nine games into the year, Krzyzewski worried about the Blue Devils even making the NCAAs, he said Saturday. That may be an exaggeration, but Duke clearly needed to overhaul its identity. The 6'9" Ingram has arrived as a transcendent NBA prospect whose production is beginning to mirror his potential. He scored 25 points on Saturday, including both ends of a one-and-one after Yale cut the lead to three points. (He did miss the front end of a one-and-one with 16 seconds left, but by then it was a five-point game).
Ingram is an embryotic version of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant who’ll be the most talented player on the floor in every game he plays the rest of the tournament. “He’s not a plant that should be put in a jar,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a plant that should be allowed to grow, and he’s growing immensely.”
Allen has also blossomed after rocketing from relative obscurity at the Final Four last year. He scored 16 points in the national title game victory over Wisconsin and outshined, on that night, Duke’s starry freshman class. “We feel like we have two of the best players in the country,” Capel said. This season, Allen (21.6 ppg) has evolved into a star and a lightning rod. Few players have overhauled their image in a year like Allen has, as his 29-point performance on just 15 shots didn’t register as anything other than the expected excellence. “He’s had to work for everything,” Capel said. “His journey to get to Duke was a story in itself. He basically recruited us. And thank God he did that.”
But those two stars can’t obscure Duke’s obvious weaknesses. Plumlee is a serviceable presence in the post, but he scored just one field goal in 31 minutes versus Yale. Freshman guard Luke Kennard helped Duke launch out to its big lead, then disappeared in the second half, scoring just two points. Junior guard Matt Jones is supposed to be a calming influence, but he managed to foul out without scoring in 20 minutes. Freshman point guard Derryck Thornton is serviceable but unspectacular. It’s not often that one leaves a game wondering why an underdog team didn’t press Duke more, but that was exactly the impression left after Yale rattled Duke in the second half. Nor is it often that such a player with a straight face will say of Duke’s thin frontcourt: “We thought we could take advantage of them on the inside and beat them up in there.” Yet that’s what Yale junior Anthony Dallier said in the postgame after Yale outscored Duke 32–18 in the paint.
This is a flawed Duke team that will remain a flawed Duke team. In a year without a clear-cut favorite, Duke shows just enough potential to make you believe and just enough flaws to keep you skeptical. “We feel like we have a shot,” Capel said, summing up Duke’s future with simple wisdom. “Things just have to go right.”