We are now 13 months removed from the third and final tripping incident of Grayson Allen’s roller coaster ride of a career as a Duke Blue Devil, and he’s managed to pull of his most impressive feat to date: He’s become an afterthought.
We don’t really need to rehash the details, do we? Allen intentionally tripped two players at the end of the 2015-16 season. Before league play started last season, he tripped another player, and all hell broke loose. He was the most-hated person in college hoops at a time when LaVar Ball was fully rounding into form. He was the topic of discussion on every debate show. Every little thing that he did was scrutinized. He needed a Florida State assistant coach to make a statement confirming that Allen did nothing wrong when he collided with the coach chasing down a loose ball. He was blamed for an incident where Wake Forest’s Brandon Childress threw Allen onto the Duke bench.
And this season, unless you’ve been paying close attention, you might have forgotten that he opted to return to school for his senior year.
He had that massive performance as the Blue Devils knocked off Michigan State in the Champions Classic, but since that night, Allen has been more than happy to play the background. Marvin Bagley III is this team’s star. Wendell Carter would be this team’s star if Bagley wasn’t around. Put another way, Duke runs everything through their massive, talented and lottery-bound front court.
He’s been relegated to playing a role. He’s Duke’s energy guy. He’s the one diving on the floor for loose balls and jumping passing lanes and doing what he can to slow down an opponent’s best wing. He’s Duke’s 3-and-D guy.
The transition hasn’t been perfect. He has the highest offensive rating of his career while using the fewest numbers of possessions, but he’s also managed to shoot just 24.6 percent from three during ACC play.
And that is the major question mark as we head into what may be the most fascinating matchup of the college basketball season to date.
On Saturday, No. 2 Virginia will make the trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on No. 4 Duke in a battle of two teams that will butt heads, strength on strength.
Duke is ranked second in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and they lead the nation in raw points-per-possession. Virginia is not only the best defensive team in the country this season, they are currently playing defense at an unprecedented level in the KenPom era, which dates back 16 years. When an unstoppable force collides with an immovable object, we find out whether or not Isaiah Wilkins, the nation’s best front court defender, can slow down Bagley, who might end up being the No. 1 pick in the draft.
But there is more to that matchup than simply the nation’s best offense going up against the nation’s best defense.
Tony Bennett, Virginia’s head coach, has become famous for his use of the Pack-Line defense, and the principles of the Pack-Line defense are really pretty simple: Don’t let the ball get into the paint and force teams to beat you with contested jumpers. The specifics are a little more complicated than that — three years ago, I broke down the defense in full — but for all intents and purposes, what you need to know is that if the ball gets into the painted area it means the defense has broken down.
The result is that Virginia does two things as well as anyone:
- They double the post on every post touch, and their defense moves so quickly that the double-team is typically there on the catch.
- They prioritize the defensive glass — something this team struggles with more than any Tony Bennett team of the past — and more or less cede the offensive glass to protect against transition points.
Duke’s offense runs through the post. They lead the nation is offensive rebounding percentage. They actively made the decision to sacrifice some of their defensive prowess in order to get both Bagley and Carter on the floor at the same time. Virginia’s defense is built around slowing those things down.
So like I said, what happens when an unstoppable force collides with an immovable object?
Which brings me back to Grayson Allen.
If Duke is going to take down Virginia, Allen is going to be so important. On the one hand, Allen is going to be chasing around Kyle Guy. Virginia doesn’t run isolations for any specific player at the end of a clock. What they do instead is run a player off of a series of screens, looking to get him freed up for a three or curling into the paint. They did it with Joe Harris. They did it with Malcolm Brogdon. They do it with Kyle Guy. Allen is going to play a major role in slowing that down.
He is also one of Duke’s resident shooters. He is the guy that Virginia is going to dare to beat them. Allen has played the background this year, but in the one game where he was forced to step into a more prominent role, he put up 37 points — 29 of which came in the final 21 minutes — on a top six team in the sport.
Duke is going to need Allen to show up like that again on Saturday if they want to beat Virginia and cut the Wahoos’ lead in the ACC to one game.
THE REST OF THE WEEKEND’S BIG GAMES
- No. 12 OKLAHOMA (-3) at ALABAMA, Sat. 2:15 p.m.: Trae Young vs. Collin Sexton. Sexton is finally healthy after missing a few games, and he will get the chance to square off with the best player in college basketball this season. I think the hyper-competitive Sexton shows up in a big way, puts up 35 and five assists and the Crimson Tide leave with a win.
- TEXAS A&M at No. 5 KANSAS (-7), Sat. 4:30 p.m.: Texas A&M badly needs to get this win, and I think they are going to be able to do it. The Aggies have struggled mightily in league play this season, losing six of their first eight games, but they have the biggest front line in the sport. Kansas? They don’t have the size or depth to handle any kind of foul trouble.
- KENTUCKY at No. 7 WEST VIRGINIA (-7), Sat. 7:00 p.m.: Press Virginia taking on a young Kentucky team with questionable decision-makers and not enough guards on the roster? Yeah. Give me the Mountaineers here.