Marvin Bagley III returned to the Duke lineup on Saturday night and poured in a team-high 19 points in 31 minutes as the No. 6 Blue Devils knocked off Syracuse in Cameron Indoor, 60-44, despite shooting just 2-for-18 from three on the night.
Bagley looked healthy. He didn’t look too out of shape. He added seven boards and he made 8-of-9 field goals and, after a slow start, looked like the guy that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in a Duke uniform.
And that’s important.
As good as Duke has played in the last two weeks without Bagley, they are just not the same basketball team without him. He’s a freak, an alien, a talent unlike just about any other in the sport this season. But it is also key to note that the reason that Duke thrived without Bagley is that Grayson Allen took over the lead guard role and found a rhythm while the Blue Devils excelled playing exclusively a zone defense.
Which is why the most important takeaway from Saturday night is that Duke was awesome defensively. Again. Syracuse scored just 44 points, the fewest that Duke has allowed in an ACC game since giving up 40 points to Clemson in January of 2013, and notched just .657 points-per-possession. That is the best performance Duke has had defensively in this recent run of five games.
During this winning streak, the Blue Devils have allowed just 0.837 PPP, which would be the best in the country if they did it over the course of an entire season. For comparison’s sake, Virginia is second nationally in defensive PPP at 0.86.
Duke used Bagley as a wing in their 2-3 zone. They used him in lineups that included two other bigs — Carter and Bolden as well as Carter and DeLaurier. They played him at the top of their 1-2-2 three-quarter court press. He was active and engaged and a positive influence on that end of the floor; that hasn’t always been the case with him.
That’s another good sign.
As is the fact that Allen finished with six assists and just one turnover. He didn’t shoot the ball well — he was just 3-for-9 from the field and missed all six of his threes — but no one on Duke did. That might just be the result of playing Syracuse; the Orange are rated as college basketball’s 10th best defense on KenPom.
When Duke plays the way that they did on Saturday — the way that they have over the last two weeks — they are the best team in college basketball.