The team ranked No. 1 in the land when the season began opened its conference tournament seeded fifth among ACC teams. That suggests the Duke Blue Devils have underachieved mightily, which is true if you’re checking the record — they’ve lost eight games — but less true in the grand scheme.
The ballyhooed all-freshman front line of Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden — ranked by Rivals as the Nos. 2, 3 and 11 prospects of 201 6 — hasn’t materialized. All were injured and missed preseason practice. None played in a November game. It’s now March, and Giles has worked only 245 minutes and Bolden 152. (By himself, Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers has logged 1,157 minutes.)
Grayson Allen, last season’s leading Duke scorer, has become renowned not for playing basketball but notorious for his intemperance. This season’s leading scorer is Luke Kennard, who has nearly doubled his average. The two least gifted starters from the Devils’ 2015 NCAA titlists — Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones — are still starting, and with all the turmoil they’ve become essential.
As if that weren’t enough, the best coach of this era and maybe all eras missed seven games after back surgery. Duke lost three of the seven. Mike Krzyzewski is back now, and even he’s not sure what’s what.
“I think we’re still evolving because of all the injuries and interruptions we’ve had,” he said Wednesday, after his Devils were life-and-death to hold off a Clemson team that won’t be going to the NCAA tournament. “But we’re getting better.”
Duke won 79-72. It had three men — Tatum, Kennard and freshman point guard Frank Jackson — score 20 points apiece. The rest of the squad totaled 19. Allen, who averaged 21.6 points last season and who famously scored 16 in 20 minutes as a freshman sub in the 2015 national championship game, played 12 minutes without scoring. He was, however, called for another technical foul.
This wasn’t for tripping an opponent, something he has done three times over the past two seasons, or for throwing an elbow, which he did Saturday night against North Carolina. This was for his reaction to missing a shot and being called for a foul on the rebound. He slammed the ball down. It bounded away. The resulting free throws gave Clemson its first lead.
Allen has been fighting an ankle injury, but mostly he’s fighting himself. The whisper in basketball circles is that the Krzyzewski family has, in the effort to protect Allen, become a band of enablers. Could any player on any other college team have pulled the on-court stunts Allen has and been docked only one game?
Whatever the cause, a troubled young man has become an addled distraction. Krzyzewski spoke of the need to “get Grayson going,” but on Wednesday he couldn’t take that risk. The Devils weren’t very good with him in the game, which was tied at the half and in doubt with two minutes remaining.
With Clemson trailing by three, the 6-foot-9 Elijah Thomas missed a layup. He wasn’t challenged He just missed. (Missed the rim, to be precise.) Then he fouled Thomas 20 feet from the basket. What should have been a one-point game was instead a five-point spread.
Afterward, someone mentioned to Brad Brownell that Duke had “taken over the game.” The Clemson coach bristled. “They didn’t take over the game,” he said. “We had a layup to make it one point.”
Then this: “They made more individual plays. Their players rose to the occasion and made high-level shots. That’s what you expect of high-level players.”
Even with eight losses, Duke remains the nation’s most talented team by some distance. NBAdraft.net projects Tatum and Giles as lottery picks, Kennard as a first-rounder. If not for his excesses, Allen would be a Round 1 draftee come June. As it stands, this overstuffed team will be a No. 4 seed come the Big Dance, but would you really want to face these Devils?
Krzyzewski: “I don’t know who we are completely. I have really good kids and they play hard and they share the ball. Maybe we’ll develop an identity here … We have four really good scorers (meaning Tatum, Kennard, Jackson and Allen). If we can ever get all four going, that’s who we’d like to be.”
Tatum was especially good against Clemson — 20 points, nine rebounds and four assists. A reporter asked if Krzyzewski had ever worked with such a versatile player. The man who’d coached Christian Laettner and Grant Hill and Eldon Brand laughed.
“Yes,” Coach K said. “That’s why we’ve won five national championships. I’ve been in a lot of big-time games because I’ve had big-time players. I’ve been in 21 Final Four games. I’ve been to 18 of these (ACC) championship games.”
And there’s the real reason not to discount these Dukies. The guy on the bench knows what he’s doing. There’s every chance he’ll think of something.