NEW YORK – Admit it. You were tempted. You saw Duke’s five starters projected to be picked in this year’s NBA draft. You saw the way they’d won seven of eight games heading into Friday night. You squinted at Marvin Bagley III and saw Chris Bosh.
And when you stare down at your bracket on Sunday, you’re going to have a hard time knocking the team universally considered the most talented in this and many college basketball seasons.
And then Friday night happened. Duke flailed, flopped and put on a 40-minute performance against North Carolina that reminded everyone why, especially in this modern era, the most talented team usually doesn’t win the NCAA tournament. A young team in need of maturity showed none of it in falling to No. 6 seed North Carolina, 74-69. The Tar Heels advance to play No. 1 Virginia for the ACC tournament title on Saturday night.
The moment that defined the game, in reality, had little to do with the outcome. Grayson Allen’s cheap shot hip-check of UNC’s Garrison Brooks in the final minute of the first half brought back all of Allen’s demons from earlier in his career. The officials whistled a flagrant-one foul and Twitter went wild.
Grayson Allen tripped a player with his booty. pic.twitter.com/HEOA79bzNm
— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) March 10, 2018
The biggest takeaway from Allen’s moment of infamy may be that on a night his team needed him, he distracted them. And everyone. Which gives Duke a cloud until they tip off in the NCAA tournament.
Allen’s immaturity revived his history of dirty play, which includes three trips, one suspension last season and endless replays and debates.
Allen summed up the play this way: “They got a fast-break and I bumped him and fouled him.”
He was asked another question, but Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski executed Duke’s most aggressive defensive play of the night when he intercepted a follow-up directed to Allen. “Do you think that was the only time someone was hipped in the game?” Coach K asked. And he added: “That happened at half-court. They got it. It’s done. That didn’t win or lose the game.”
That’s true. But it showed why you have to look through all of Duke’s resplendent talent and be very skeptical of the Blue Devils next Sunday.
The play wasn’t dirty enough to launch a Justice Department probe or suspend Allen. But it was exactly what Duke didn’t need – tonight, this week and heading into a tournament where their talent dictates they should be the favorite but intangibles and inexperience indicate they’ll falter.
Brooks summed up the reaction of the rest of America in the North Carolina locker room. He told reporters: “He kind of stuck his leg out,” Brooks said. “That’s what he does. It didn’t surprise me.”
The most worrisome part of Duke’s night wasn’t Allen’s antics, it was that North Carolina exposed every Duke weakness. And that includes immaturity and inexperience.
Duke shot just 26 percent from 3-point range, showing they’ll be vulnerable to a zone. They played their 2-3 zone with all the energy of a Motel 6 clerk on an overnight shift, as UNC had assists on 24 of 28 field goals. (Princeton teams are envious of that clip, a sign of a parade of unchallenged jump shots.) Duke also had less depth than a Kardashian lecture on Russian literature, as its bench got outscored 16-0. From falling behind to start the game, 16-3, to laying a dinosaur egg for the first 15 minutes of the second half, Duke proved a giant tease. For every monster Bagley rebound or Wendell Carter block, Duke had flat possessions, 18 turnovers and a general lack of synergy.
Duke will be the most talented team in the field. Ask any coach in the ACC. Ask any NBA scout. Ask any guy at the corner bar. But talent doesn’t win the NCAA tournament, as Kentucky’s John Calipari has won plenty of signing days and draft nights and still managed to take home a lone NCAA title to Lexington. (And that was with the No. 1 and No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, plus a crew of sturdy veterans.)
Coach K is about to face tournament life as this year’s Coach Cal, as this Duke team has five players expected to be picked in the upcoming NBA draft. Bagley is a sure-fire top-three pick and Carter will go in the lottery. Both Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval are expected to declare, and they’ll be borderline first-round picks likely to settle in the second round. Allen is all over the second round, with each moment like Friday night certainly giving NBA executives pause. “In terms of talent on paper,” said an NBA scout watching Duke in Brooklyn this week, “I couldn’t even tell you who is close [to Duke in talent].”
Krzyzewski didn’t dispute a question about his talent, and his job will be to manage it. “They’re good kids,” he said. “They want to be good. There’s going to be slippage. There’s going to be a game like this.”
Pick Duke at your own risk. On a night when Allen’s ghosts returned, the Blue Devils reminded everyone why picking them to win the NCAA tournament could trip up your bracket.
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