Duke's forgotten freshman helps carry the Blue Devils to a title

Duke's forgotten freshman helps carry the Blue Devils to a title

INDIANAPOLIS — One month into his debut season at Duke, freshman guard Grayson Allen could feel himself slipping into what he calls spectator mode.

He was only playing a handful of minutes in most games and twice he hadn't even gotten off the bench at all. As a result, the former McDonald's All-American spent long stretches of games sulking on the bench instead of concentrating on how he could contribute in limited minutes.

"I did get down on myself and I think that hurt me," Allen said. "I wasn't expecting to get in and I was acting like I wasn't part of the team on the bench. I was just watching. Eventually [Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski] sat down with me and told me not to just work toward next year. He told me to stay ready because my time was this year."

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Never has Krzyzewski spoken truer words than those. This season indeed was Allen's time, even if the phenomenally talented freshman had to wait until Duke's very last game to have his breakout performance.

With Duke trailing Wisconsin by nine points early in the second half of Monday's title game and stars Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow saddled with foul trouble, Allen entered the game and provided a spark. He scored eight of his 16 points in the next two minutes, a one-man surge that lifted the Blue Devils back into striking distance and enabled them to capture Krzyzewski's fifth national championship with a 68-63 victory.

Allen's first big shot was a 3-pointer in which he made his defender pay for helping off him too far. He scored Duke's next five points attacking Wisconsin's slower defenders off the dribble, blowing by a flat-footed Sam Dekker for a 3-point play on one possession and drawing a foul on Duje Dukan on the next.

"He put us on his back and he put us in position to win," Okafor said. "We all knew how good he is. He's always one of our best players and our hardest workers and he proved it today."

Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky (44) tries to block a shot by Duke's Grayson Allen (3). (AP)
Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky (44) tries to block a shot by Duke's Grayson Allen (3). (AP)

That it was Allen who sank some of Monday's biggest shots has to be galling for Wisconsin because the Badgers probably didn't spend much time preparing for him. On a Duke team that features this June's potential No. 1 overall draft pick in Okafor and two other elite first-year stars in Winslow and Tyus Jones, Allen is truly the forgotten freshman.

Although Allen received scholarship offers from the likes of Florida, Florida State, Texas and Miami before committing to Duke late in his junior year, he has been forced to wait his turn while his classmates have flourished. Allen had only scored 16 or more points twice all season before Monday night and had gone scoreless in 14 of Duke's games.

What was frustrating sometimes for Allen was that his lack of playing time wasn't a product of anything he was doing wrong. He drew praise from the coaching staff for his work ethic and intensity in practice, but he was stuck behind the likes of Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, Matt Jones and initially Rasheed Sulaimon in a crowded Duke backcourt rotation.

"We'd been riding those other horses," Duke assistant Nate James said. "It wasn't that coach didn't believe in him. It was just Quinn, Tyus, Matt, they had been playing great for us."

Had it not been for Sulaimon's Jan. 30 dismissal from the team, Allen might never have cracked Duke's rotation this season. He hadn't logged double-digit minutes in any ACC game prior to that, but he received at least 10 minutes in eight of the Blue Devils' 13 remaining regular season games thereafter.

Allen was still the last player in Duke's eight-man rotation, but he showed enough burst off the dribble and enough confidence as a shooter for Krzyzewski to trust him in big postseason games. He also benefited from a chat with assistant coach Jon Scheyer after an 0-for-3 shooting effort in Duke's opening-round NCAA tournament win over Robert Morris.

"What he had done so well up until that point was next game, next play, and during that game he got a little frustrated," Scheyer said. "We just had a little talk about moving on to the next game, and every game since he has been great."

Though Allen had nine points in the national semifinals against Michigan State including a big baseline dunk, it was Monday's title game that proved to be his breakthrough.

On the biggest stage in college basketball, in front of more than 70,000 fans, Allen logged 21 minutes, sank 5 of 8 shots and kept his team in the game long enough for Tyus Jones and Okafor to deliver the daggers in the final minutes. Duke's freshmen scored every one of the team's 37 second-half points, and Allen accounted for 10 of them.

Allen admits he might not have been prepared to make that kind of impact off the bench back in December. But on Monday night, he was focused, attentive and a long way from spectator mode.

"I knew I might never get another chance to win a championship, so I figured I might as well go out there, be aggressive and give it my all," Allen said. "I dreamed about this ever since I saw Duke win a championship in 2010 over Butler. To finally be here and to have this actually happen my freshman year, it's amazing."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!