CHICAGO – It was not a good night for Grayson Allen Haters.
Duke’s senior star scored 23 of his 37 points in the second half and Trevon Duval added 17 points, 10 assists and five steals as No. 1 Duke knocked off No. 2 Michigan State in the opener of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night, 88-81.
Allen, who scored six points in the final minute of the first half as well, finished with seven threes on the night and carried Duke in the second half of a game where the Blue Devils were on the ropes. They were playing without Marvin Bagley III for the final 30 minutes of the game, and their front line struggled against the massive Michigan State Spartans.
All the while, Allen made big shot after big shot down the stretch.
And in the end, it didn’t matter that the top recruit in the Class of 2017 was sitting on the bench with his right eye swollen up, and it didn’t matter that two of Duke’s three remaining elite freshmen were struggling to play up to their potential.
The Blue Devils left the United Center with a win over the No. 2 team in college basketball.
That’s a scary thought.
But not quite as scary as the idea that Grayson Allen is the man that’s here to save college basketball.
Tuesday night is a night that we desperately needed in a sport that has spent the past six weeks dealing with the fall out of the biggest scandal in the sport’s history: An FBI investigation into corruption in recruiting, both by colleges and agents looking to land clients, that has left four assistant coaches and ten men in total facing federal charges. It’s what we needed for a sport whose opening night was dominated by headlines of players being held out of competition and quasi-celebrities on the UCLA roster spending time in a Chinese jail.
Hell, at halftime of the opening game of the double-header Kansas released a statement that said that their star freshman, Billy Preston, was being held out of competition while they investigated how he paid for a car that he crashed last week.
We needed a night to talk about the games, only the games and nothing but the games, and the man to do that was the center of controversy himself, Grayson Allen.
How about that?
In the big picture, the story of this game for Duke is the health of Bagley. After getting poked in the eye by a teammate midway through the first half, Bagley spent a few minutes on the ground – appearing to mouth the words “I can’t see” – before heading back to the locker room. He returned to the court during halftime, but he did not even warm-up with the team let alone return to the court, and Coach K referred to the injury as a “scratched eye,” and everyone that I spoke to on the Duke staff did not believe the injury to be serious.
Without Bagley on the floor, Duke’s half-court offense sputtered initially. Trevon Duval took some ill-advised shots and Gary Trent struggled to find a rhythm while Wendell Carter was flat-out bad for roughly the first 30 minutes of the game. Duke did enough to get easy offense in other ways – they had 15 offensive rebounds in the first-half and forced eight Michigan State turnovers – but without Carter and Bagley to run sets through, the Blue Devils looked bogged down in the half court.
Duval managed to settle down, however, and proved himself to be one of the best players on the floor. He was an absolute menace on the defensive end, got to the rim at will and ignited Duke’s transition offense. When he figures out his shooting stroke, he’ll have a shot to be a very, very good player.
He was a big reason that Duke’s 2-3 zone was so effective, as was Javin DeLaurier, a sophomore that came off the bench and was terrific for the Blue Devils, his length and activity causing havoc for Sparty. Michigan State was able to figure things out in the second half, as Miles Bridges found his shooting stroke and Michigan State started pounding the ball into the paint. They made their run, they answered the barrage of Allen threes by trying to foul out every big man on the Duke roster.
But, again, Duke had an answer.
It was Allen.
“He’s not a good shooter,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s a great shooter.”
Duke’s roster is loaded with freshmen and sophomores, and not all of those highly-regarded freshmen and sophomores played well on Tuesday. Bagley was injured and did not return. Trent struggled to find his shooting stroke, although he did hit a massive shot down the stretch. Duval was terrific, but Wendell Carter was relatively ineffective until the final 10 minutes of the game. Marques Bolden is … Marques Bolden, and as well as DeLaurier played, he’s a role player. He’s on the floor to be long and athletic and full of energy, and he was long and athletic and full of energy.
Put another way, in a game that was pitted as a battle of the front courts, Michigan State won that fight.
And Duke won the game.
Because Allen put together what may end up being the best performance we see on a college basketball court this season. Two season ago, in this very same building, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine went for 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists as Michigan State landed a come-from-behind win against then-No. 1 Kansas. That performance put him in the driver’s seat for National Player of the Year, and while Buddy Hield did Buddy Hield things all season long, Valentine ended up splitting the National Player of the Year awards.
Allen could very well end up on that same trajectory.
“I’ve played in 90 more games than the four teammates out there with me,” Allen said with a laugh. “So I feel a little bit more comfortable and calm and confident.”
For all the stick he gets, for as much as he is demonized in the media – much of it deserved, some of it over-the-top – Allen is a helluva basketball player when he is healthy.
When we talk about how valuable talented veterans are on these one-and-done superteams, that is what we mean.