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Duke advances past Louisville in ACC quarters, to face North Carolina

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BROOKLYN — The story of Thursday afternoon’s ACC semifinal between fifth-seeded Duke and fourth-seeded Louisville is going to be Grayson Allen.

Allen — the Preseason National Player of the Year who has simultaneously been the most scrutinized player in college basketball, one of the biggest disappointments in the sport and a guy who is as banged up physically as he’s been in the media this year — broke out of a month-long slump in emphatic fashion. He scored 18 points in 28 minutes off the bench as the Blue Devils erased a 12-point deficit in the final 13 minutes to knock off Louisville, 81-77.

Over the course of the previous eight games, Allen had averaged 6.9 points and shot 26 percent from the floor as he battled an ankle injury that kept him out for a game and a lack of confidence that sent him to the bench. It came to a head on Wednesday, as Duke was able to beat Clemson despite the fact that Allen contributed no points and one technical foul in just 12 minutes. As a team, the Blue Devils were just 5-3 in those eight games.

“He wasn’t ready to play as well last night,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Thursday’s win. “Look, I love Grayson. Grayson, I got his back all the time. And everyone in our program has his back all the time. It’s just, the public eye on our program is a blessing and can be a curse. So we have to be able to deal with all of it.”

The game changed during a 24-9 run midway through the second half, one that turned a 61-49 deficit into a 73-70 lead for the Blue Devils. That run was sparked by three straight threes that Luke Kennard, who scored 16 of his 24 points in the final 13 minutes, made. But during that stretch, Allen and Louisville sub David Levitch got into a minor altercation. On one possession, Levitch was whistled for two fouls for crowding Allen, the latter of which came as Allen shot a three-pointer. Allen his all three of his free throws, cutting the Louisville lead to three.

Coach K pulled Allen from the game after that sequence and proceeded to give him a hug while driving home his happiness with the effort by enthusiastically smacking Allen on the butt.

“I believe in him. I love him,” Coach K said. “And I thought what he did today was sensational. I loved it. I loved it. He was himself today.”

The Duke team let him know, Kennard said, that on Wednesday, “he wasn’t himself.” He didn’t play the way they knew he could play. He didn’t do the things he’s capable of doing. Everyone saw it, and his teammates made sure to let him know about it.

“There’s no need to coddle him because he doesn’t need it,” senior Matt Jones said. “It’s basketball. You have your ups and you have your downs. G knows everyone in this locker room has his back.”

That’s the narrative that you’re going to get on Thursday, that Allen’s back and healthy and confident, just in time for the Blue Devils to square off with North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC tournament on Friday night.

In the Barclays Center.

On national television.

I’ll admit, I’m extremely fired up for that game. If that’s the narrative, it’s a damn good one.

But it’s not the reason that Duke made their comeback on Thursday against Louisville.

That can truthfully be credited to two things: Kennard’s takeover and Duke’s 2-3 zone, which caught Louisville completely off-guard. The zone was thrown on with Duke down 12, and it totally changed the rhythm of the game.

“Any port in a storm, so to speak,” Coach K said. “We could not stop them in transition in man. And they missed some shots. It’s not like we played a great zone, but it changed a little the tempo.”

That change in tempo was all the difference. Instead of Louisville getting stops and easy points in transition, they were settling for threes and trying to drive against a packed-in zone defense that was designed to dare the three-point deficient Cardinals from firing away.

“Coach had that in his back pocket,” Jones said. “We just got competitors and we want to win. We don’t work on it in practice.”

That surge coincided with Kennard’s game-changing trio of threes. A couple of possessions before Louisville took their biggest lead of the game, Kennard, who missed seven of his first ten shots from the floor, threw up three bricks from beyond the arc on the same possessions. He made the next four shots he attempted, three of which came from beyond the arc, and that’s what launched the run and the comeback.

Getting Grayson Allen right was huge for the Blue Devils. Their ceiling is significantly lower when he’s not playing well, and he hadn’t played well since going for 25 points in a win over North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium in early February.

That’s important.

But the reason Duke won on Thursday was because Kennard got hot at the right time and Duke’s defense made the plays they needed to make.

And at the end of the day, the reason Duke can win a national title is because, on any given night, the Blue Devils have three guys that can be the best player on the floor in any game they play.

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Florida State picks up late commit from McDonald’s All-American

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The losses sustained by Florida State have been numerous and significant. Three players declared early for the NBA Draft. Another two contributors were lost to graduation. All in all, the Seminoles haven’t had the greatest of springs.

Wednesday, though, they got some good news.

McDonald’s All-American wing M.J. Walker committed Leonard Hamilton’s program to give Florida State a late, and important, addition to its 2017 recruiting class, beating the likes of Ohio State, Georgia Tech and UCLA.

Walker, a 6-foot-5 guard, gives the Seminoles yet another five-star prospect after landing Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac in the last two recruiting classes. Walker will help Hamilton and Co. reboot after both Bacon and Isaac, along with Xavier Rathan-Mayes, all left school to pursue professional careers after the Seminoles’ 26-9 season that saw them advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Walker becomes the sixth member of Hamilton’s 2017 recruiting class that was previously headlined by four-star 7-footer Ikechukwu Obiagu. That group will be tasked to retool a team losing not only major NBA-level talent, but also major production. The Seminoles won’t return a single player who averaged double-digit points per-game last year and just one who played at least 20 minutes per night.

Michigan returns Mo Wagner, loses D.J. Wilson

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The best-case scenario did not take place for Michigan this week.

The Wolverines waited for four weeks to hear back from their pair of mobile big men, and the news on Mo Wagner was positive. The 6-foot-10 junior from Germany announced on Wednesday that he will return to school after testing the NBA Draft waters.

The news was not as fortunate with D.J. Wilson, who announced less than ten hours before the deadline that he will be signing with an agent and turning pro. Wilson is projected as a late first round or early second round pick.

Without Wilson in the fold, Michigan lacks some front court depth, which will probably be enough to keep them out of the preseason top 25.

Gonzaga to return Johnathan Williams III

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Losing Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins to the professional ranks probably torpedoed Gonzaga’s chance of making another run to the NCAA tournament national title game, but after Johnathan Williams III announced on Wednesday that he will be returning to school and withdrawing from the NBA Draft, Gonzaga does appear to be a favorite to win the WCC title again.

Williams is now Gonzaga’s leading returning scorer and rebounder, anchoring a front court that also loses Przemek Karnowski to graduation. He was expected to go undrafted.

With Williams back in the fold, the Zags should be right there with Saint Mary’s in the race for the WCC title. Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Killian Tillie all return as well.

ESPN was the first to report the news.

Injured Gamecocks point guard Blanton gives up basketball

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina guard TeMarcus Blanton is giving up basketball after struggling with a serious hip injury he suffered before his freshman season.

Gamecocks coach Frank Martin says Blanton told him he could not get his body to respond to a level that would allow him to continue playing basketball. Blanton is a 6-foot-5 junior from Locust Grove, Georgia, who hurt his hip during preseason for the 2014-15 season. He needed surgery and could not return to the court until his sophomore year.

Blanton played in 29 games, averaging 1.4 points a game.

He said on social media he is grateful to his coaches, teammates and South Carolina fans, “but my journey of basketball has come to an end.”

Blanton received a medical exemption from the Southeastern Conference to remain part of the Gamecocks’ program moving forward.

North Carolina’s Tony Bradley to remain NBA Draft

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For the first time in a decade and just the third time in 14 seasons as UNC’s head coach, Roy Williams has a one-and-done player.

North Carolina’s Tony Bradley will sign with an agent and remain in the NBA Draft.

Bradley had an impressive freshman season, averaging 7.1 points and 5.1 boards in less than 15 minutes per game as the sixth-man for the national title-winning Tar Heels. He initially declared for the draft without signing with an agent, testing the waters, and the feedback was positive: He’ll likely be a late first round or early second round pick.

As the process dragged on, it became fairly evident that Bradley would keep his name in the draft, and that is a massive blow for a UNC team that is already losing Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, not to mention Justin Jackson.

As it stands, Roy Williams will likely start the following lineup next season: Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson on the perimeter with Luke Maye and either Brandon Huffman or Garrison Brooks, both freshmen, alongside him. Williams is one of the few coaches left in the sport that still relies on playing two bigs and utilizing an overwhelming front court to win games, and that is not going to be an easy thing to do with that group of bigs.

UNC’s perimeter is strong. Berry will likely be a preseason all-american while Pinson and Williams are both above average role players on the wings.

But without that hoss in the paint — Bradley, like Berry, would have popped up on preseason all-american teams — the Tar Heels are going to have a tough time making a run at an ACC title, let alone a third straight trip to the national title game.

North Carolina is currently ranked 18th in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.