CHICAGO—It was a game Grayson Allen probably should have taken over, so he did. No.1 Duke’s early-season meeting with No. 2 Michigan State could have easily been defined by say, Marvin Bagley leaving early after an incidental poke in the eye, or generally sloppy transition defense, or the Blue Devils’ sheer inexperience. At moments it was. But say what you want about Allen: 37 points and an 88—81 win were more than sufficient.
There’s a reason why Duke is ranked first (hint: it has a lot to do with the wealth of talent on the roster). But the Blue Devils are again a national title contender thanks to Allen, a rare star senior in Mike Krzyzewski’s one-and-done phase and a frontrunner for National Player of the Year. It’s the moments like this that make the case. For Allen, perpetually playing under the shadow of his past transgressions, the whole thing bordered on redemptive.
“I felt like I was coaching [J.J.] Redick,” Krzyzewski said after the game, alluding to another of college basketball’s great villains on a night where the comparison felt worthy. Allen’s seven three pointers—many of them on the move and at critical times—picked up his teammates on a night where everyone else shot just 33% from the floor combined. It’s easy to allude to experience and poise and swim in the clichés, but Allen is Duke’s only senior, and played that way. Give him an inch of space on the outside, he gave you a bucket.
Things could have been so much worse. Potential No. 1 draft pick Bagley lasted just 10 minutes in Tuesday’s game, and the absence of the star freshman on the front line lay the Blue Devils’ vulnerabilities bare. Krzyzewski delivered the best news of the night for Duke, saying after the game he thought Bagley was fine. Despite a scratch on his eye, the decision to sit him the rest of the way was precautionary. With Bagley missing so much of the game, it’s hard to get an exact feel for how this team matches up in big moments, and it wasn’t the smoothest start to the game even with him.
After Bagley departed for the locker room, the limitations of Duke’s roster took center stage. Wendell Carter, another touted freshman, often looked overmatched against the Spartans’ size. Krzyzewski has leaned on a 2–3 zone early this season, but when Carter and slow-footed Marques Bolden were placed at the center of it, Michigan State eventually took advantage. Sophomore Nick Ward—not the fleetest of foot—snuck into defensive holes to the tune of 19 points. After a Spartans’ run late in the first half, Duke was forced to buy time with four-guard lineups around sophomore Javin DeLaurier. With or without Bagley, there’s some serious defensive tinkering to be done here, and it’s hard to rag too hard on the 2–3 zone when you understand the lack of versatile wing players—or really, wings in general.
Michigan State looked like a worthy contender during its high points, with potential lottery picks Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges draining threes, blocking shots and impacting the game on both ends. Duke competed defensively as the game went on, and the move to smaller lineups wound up a shrewd call, allowing for a more agile, aggressive zone. Despite going smaller, Duke won the rebounding splits 46—34 and managed 25 offensive rebounds (only four coming from the injured Bagley). Despite Ward’s activity under the rim, the Blue Devils were able to absorb the blows and effectively push back, bending and holding thanks to strong backcourt play.
Duke got a major boost from impressive freshman Trevon Duval, who played about as complete a game as he could despite his shooting woes. Duval played under control, got his team into offensive sets and did real damage in transition, finishing with 17 points, 10 assists and three turnovers. His proficiency on the ball freed up Allen to dart around off it—an experience he’ll surely enjoy all season. Duval looked like the true lead guard the Blue Devils have needed since Tyus Jones’ departure, and the perfect wingman.
All that said, it’s often the nights that are furthest from perfect where you learn the most about a team. And individually, Allen got close and took Duke with him. He still drew boos for hard fouls and occasional flops, hazards that are is par for the course. His play spoke for him. Sure, this team is visibly inexperienced and is bound to take some lumps. But when your failsafe looks like this, why trip?