St. John’s entered Saturday sitting at 10-13 on the season, winless in all 11 Big East games that they have played this season.
The Johnnies will still be winless in the Big East on Super Bowl Sunday, but they added a nice little consolation prize into the mix, as they rode 33 points from Shamorie Ponds to an 81-77 win over No. 4 Duke in Madison Square Garden.
Ponds was the best player on the floor on Saturday, finishing with seven boards, four steals and three assists to go along with those 33 points. He lit up whoever was tasked with trying to guard him and made a pair of massive buckets down the stretch — a layup with just over a minute left to answer Duke after the Blue Devils re-took the lead, and a three on the ensuing possession to put the Johnnies up 77-73 with just over 30 seconds left.
“They made us look bad but then we made ourselves look bad. We didn’t play basketball the first 32 minutes worthy of our program,” Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “It was disgusting, really.”
He is a very, very good player and scorer. He doesn’t get much national attention because the Johnnies haven’t won this year, but it is not all that shocking to see Ponds go crazy in Madison Square Garden while carrying St. John’s to a big win over a good team.
And it’s also not all that surprising to see a lead guard slice up Duke’s defense. We’ve come to expect it at this point, right? Duke doesn’t guard, particularly dynamic, play-making ball-handlers.
Hell, I don’t even think it would be right to hammer Duke for losing this game. The fact of the matter is that St. John’s has the talent to be in the mix as an NCAA tournament team. They have been the most disappointing team in the Big East this season and one of the more disappointing teams in the counter. If the Johnnies were winning at the rate that they should be winning, this would just be another case of Duke losing a road game to an OK team that matched up well with them.
But none of that changes the fact that this Duke team just doesn’t seem to fit.
Grayson Allen was a total no-show again. He finished with just seven points on 1-for-7 shooting despite playing all 40 minutes. The only field goal he made came with less than a minute left, and if it wasn’t for two more threes that he missed on the final two possessions, he would have left the Garden having shot the ball just four times.
That said, I can appreciate what Allen is trying to do.
He’s trying to play a role. He’s trying to do what Quinn Cook did for the 2015 title-winning team. He’s trying to be the guy that sacrifices his numbers for the sake of winning. The problem is that the rest of these pieces just do not seem to fit.
Take Gary Trent Jr., for example. He’s really come on strong shooting the ball in ACC play, but he’s been such a liability on the defensive end of the floor, whether Duke is in zone or in man. Wendell Carter might be an all-american, but he essentially plays the same spot on the floor as Bagley, and hes not as good as Bagley is. Then there is Trevon Duval. No one respects his ability to shoot, which makes it that much easier to throw bodies at Duke’s bigs.
And then there is the issue of what happens when Bagley is off the floor. On Saturday, Duke’s offense went directly into the toilet. They were already the majority of the way through a slow start to the second half when Bagley picked up his fourth foul, but as soon as he went to the bench, Duke’s offense looked awful. I’m not sure they had one quality possession during the five or so minutes he was on the bench.
All told, the Johnnies used a 27-11 surge to open the second half and build a 59-50 lead.
“The basketball gods understand, in most cases, who should win,” Coach K said. “We got what we deserved.”
Oh, and Bagley?
He sat for seven minutes midway through the second half, the stretch when Duke has made a habit of digging themselves out of the holes that they create.
And to me, that right there is the most important part of this game.
Duke once again dug themselves a hole. Then Bagley got into foul trouble, and the Blue Devils didn’t have the horses to dig themselves back out.
The truth is, other than the game against Michigan State on the fifth day of the season, Duke has yet to really put in a complete performance against a team that looks like they can get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. They needed to come storming back against Texas, and Florida, and Indiana. They rallied late against Miami and even trailed Virginia by 10 points at the half. Their best performance against a good team came at home against Florida State when they gave up 93 points.
And all of those comebacks more or less have one thing in common: Marvin Bagley III taking over.
It really isn’t hard to frame Duke’s season like this: They are a bad defensive team with incohesive talent that would be 15-8 on the season if Bagley wasn’t a super-human.