• From a lackluster season from guard Grayson Allen, to an under-the-rader, sneaky-good year from Gary Trent Jr., the Blue Devils have plenty of assets mixed in with an handful issues to deal with in the final weeks of the season. So what does that mean for March?
By Chris Johnson
February 08, 2018

For much of this season, Duke has been viewed as one of the best teams in the country. The Blue Devils’ received 57 of 69 first-place votes in the media poll the Atlantic Coast Conference conducted in October, and they entered their Nov. 10 opener against Elon ranked first in the AP Top 25 on the strength of a roster stuffed with blue-chip recruits and projected NBA draft picks. Duke lost only once before New Year’s Day, at Boston College on Dec. 9, and it had won six of its last seven games, with the lone defeat coming against No. 2 Virginia on Jan. 27, heading into Saturday’s trip to St. John’s.

The Blue Devils were expected to crush the Red Storm, and for good reason. Chris Mullin’s team had dropped its first 11 games in Big East play, during which it has ranked ninth in the conference offensively and ninth defensively on a per-possession basis. On Saturday, that same team upset Duke, 81-77, by getting 33 points from sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds and ringing up 1.19 points per possession. “We did not play basketball the first 32 minutes worthy of our program,” Mike Krzyzewski said afterward. “We had blank faces, we didn’t talk, we were like five individuals out there. It was disgusting, really.”

Sports Illustrated was at Madison Square Garden to witness a bad team* hand Duke a bad loss, one that reflected the basic reality that the Blue Devils, for all their lottery-bound talent, remain a young group prone to bouts of inconsistency. Duke is not immune to being picked off by a game opponent, like the one it faced on Saturday, and it will endure more turbulence over the next month. But the Blue Devils don’t need to peak yet. By the start of the NCAA tournament, this loss likely will have receded into the background. “We just move on,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re going to get better. Sometimes you have to look horrible to get better.”

Anyone who watched Duke for the first time this season against St. John’s would have come away thinking the Blue Devils have some serious issues to sort out, but it would be misguided to dismiss them as a national championship contender. Here are four takeaways on Duke before it tips off the first of two matchups against in-state rival North Carolina on Thursday night. This is the 11th version of a weekly column analyzing four college hoops topics bound by some underlying narrative thread. If there’s something you’d like to see in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

*Albeit one that’s certainly not playing bad right now, not after downing No. 1 Villanova in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. Really impressive stuff, but let’s see what St. John’s does during the remainder of Big East play.

Duke’s defense could be a problem

The Blue Devils showed three years ago that their defensive performance over the course of the regular season isn’t necessarily indicative of what they can do during the NCAAs. In 2015, they entered their first-round matchup with No. 16 seed Robert Morris ranked 37th nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency and third in adjusted offensive efficiency. Duke went on to hold five of its next six opponents (including the Colonials) to 0.90 points per possession or fewer on the road to the program’s fifth national championship. Something similar may be in play for the Blue Devils this season, which currently check in at No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 69 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Their offense wears down the opposition (bar Virginia) with a blend of accurate shooting from both sides of the arc (56.8% from 2 and 38.9% from 3) and nation-best second-chance generation (41.2 offensive rebounding percentage). In most of its games between now and Selection Sunday, Duke will put up enough points that it may not matter if it can’t consistently get stops, but that wasn’t the case against the Red Storm, against which the Blue Devils scored 1.13 PPP to their 1.19 PPP, and it’s probably not a sound formula for a deep tourney run.

You’ll recall the 2011-12 Blue Devils squad that carried Ken Pomeroy’s No. 6 offense and No. 71 defense into a game against No. 15 seed Lehigh, only to be C.J. McCollum’d in a five-point upset, as well as the 2013-14 Blue Devils group ranked No. 2 on offense and No. 77 on defense that was bounced by No. 14 seed Mercer. This version of Duke also will have to confront the perils of a great offense/leaky defense profile in March. It could be headed toward another upset at the hands of a mid-major, or the Blue Devils could get to San Antonio by pairing their high-powered offense with the sort of lockdown D that allowed them to cut down the nets in 2015. The upcoming meetings with North Carolina, ranked 15th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, in Chapel Hill (Feb. 8) and Durham (Mar. 3) will be good barometers.

This is not the season we expected Grayson Allen to have

When Duke announced last spring that Allen would return to school instead of entering the NBA draft, it was difficult to envision a scenario in which he was not the center of attention in 2017-18. Allen plays for a blueblood program that hasn’t missed the NCAAs this century and has been on the short list of a given season’s Final Four threats more often than not this decade, and he’d become college basketball’s consummate villain by repeatedly tripping opposing players. He also looked like a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate even after big man Marvin Bagley III’s late reclassification from 2018 to 2017. (SI pegged Allen No. 2 in our preseason NPOY ratings, behind only Michigan State’s Miles Bridges.) Even people who loathed Allen and the program he plays for were going to have a hard time avoiding him, it seemed. Instead, with only eight games remaining on Duke’s regular-season schedule, Allen has mostly faded into the background.

Saturday was a prime example: Allen didn’t convert a shot from the field until he drilled a three to bring the Blue Devils within one in the final minute of regulation, and he finished with fewer points (7) than any other Duke starter. In ACC play, he’s averaging only 13.1 points per 40 minutes with an effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for the added value of the three-point shot) of 42.2, numbers that pale in comparison to what he put up during his breakout sophomore season (23.3 points per 40 minutes, 57.5 effective field goal percentage). Since going off for 37 points in a seven-point win over the Spartans in the Champions Classic in November, Allen hasn’t generated many national headlines. That’s partly because Bagley’s greatness has drowned out everything happening around him. He’s Duke’s best player and a candidate to be selected with a top-five draft pick, whereas Allen is a complementary rotation piece who could slip out of the first round. Allen may yet have his moment in the spotlight. There was a play during Duke’s loss to Virginia that drew notice on social media in which Allen stuck his right leg in the path of Cavaliers guard Kyle Guy as Guy dribbled past him, and at another point in that game, Allen was shown swatting away Guy’s hand after Guy’s elbow made contact with Allen’s chin. The biggest story coming out of Durham on that day was not Allen. It was Virginia notching a huge road victory. But don’t rule out the possibility that Allen becomes above-the-fold news at some point later this season, whether because of another tripping incident or him coming through with a big scoring effort to help Duke stave off elimination from the NCAAs.

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Gary Trent Jr. has been awesome

Bagley was the main attraction in Duke’s recruiting class, and two other prospects in the class, five-star IMG (Fla.) Academy point guard Trevon Duval and five-star Pace (Ga.) Academy power forward Wendell Carter Jr., also were more highly regarded than Trent. That’s not to say he wasn’t a well-known prospect. Trent is the son of the 1995 first-round draft pick and nine-season NBA veteran with whom he shares a name and he had considerable experience playing with USA Basketball. He was also named a McDonald’s All-American, invited to participate in the Jordan Brand Classic and Nike Hoop Summit and showed up in Durham ranked 14th in the class of 2017 Recruiting Services Consensus Index, a composite that incorporates data from several services.

Trent’s modest recruiting hype relative to the other prospects headed to Duke with him is probably the biggest reason he flew under the radar coming into the season, and that hasn’t really changed during it even though he was pivotal in leading the Blue Devils to their biggest road win so far, scoring a game-high 30 points at Miami on Jan. 15. Trent’s relatively low profile shouldn’t obscure the reality that he’s one of the most effective three-point shooters in the ACC and a dangerous auxiliary scorer for the nation’s top offense south of Villanova, Pa. He paced Duke with 22 points, including a 5-of-7 mark from distance, against St. John’s, and over 10 games against conference competition this season, Trent has posted a 132.1 offensive rating, higher than any other ACC player, according to kenpom.com. Trent also is one of only two players in the league who’ve shot 40% or better from deep over at least 140 attempts, according to sports-reference.com. (Trent’s 3P% on 145 attempts is 44.8, while Virginia’s Guy has a 3P% of 40.5 over 163 attempts.) Teams that leave Trent open behind the arc risk getting burned by an off-the-catch trey, and the floor-spacing his shooting provides helps create better looks for teammates like Bagley, who routinely punishes overmatched frontcourt defenders. Duke’s offense will continue to run through Bagley, but Trent is a potent perimeter threat who demands tight coverage from opponents.

The ACC title race is over, but…

Virginia effectively wrapped up the race for the ACC’s regular-season championship when it beat Duke in its own building late last month. The Blue Devils were the Cavaliers’ most realistic challengers, and the teams won’t meet again unless it’s in the conference tournament or the NCAAs. Although Virginia still has to travel to Miami (Feb. 13) and Louisville (Mar. 1), Ken Pomeroy gives it at least a 69% chance to win each of its remaining games. Duke, by contrast, has only a 52% chance on Thursday at North Carolina, and a 54% chance in its Feb. 18 trip to Clemson, according to Pomeroy. Now 7-3 in the ACC, the Blue Devils aren’t catching the Cavaliers, which moved to 12-0 with a win at Florida State on Wednesday. Virginia should be commended for rolling through the majority of its league slate unbeaten after not showing up in the preseason polls, and it has a more robust tourney résumé than Duke, but the Blue Devils might have a higher ceiling in March. That has less to do with Virginia’s recent track record in the NCAAs, lack of top-end recruits or low-tempo style than what Duke could be if it complements its blistering offense with an improved defense.

The Blue Devils have shot the ball more accurately than any other ACC team during conference play, according to effective field goal percentage, and they excel at giving themselves more opportunities to shoot by crashing the offensive glass. (Taking better care of the ball would help, too.) Bagley is an interior scoring force that most teams can’t consistently deny without fouling, and between Trent and Allen, Duke has enough long-range firepower to strain defenses (though Allen has knocked down only 26.2% of his 65 attempts against ACC competition). If the Blue Devils can firm up their defense, whether by using the zone they’ve flashed at times more often or doing something else, there isn’t a team they can’t vanquish. If they don’t clean things up on that end of the floor, they’ll be in danger of getting tripped up before the second weekend.

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