Take three projected lottery picks off preseason No. 1 Duke, and what do you get?
Apparently, still a pretty good basketball team.
With McDonald’s All-Americans Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden all sidelined by injuries, Duke has still reeled off seven victories in its first eight games against a schedule rife with quality opponents. The fifth-ranked Blue Devils added to their impressive start Tuesday night with a 78-69 victory over visiting Michigan State in one of the marquee games of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Despite only using six players against the Spartans, Duke managed to break open a tight game with an 11-0 second-half run fueled by careless Michigan State turnovers that turned into easy transition baskets. Grayson Allen overcame a lingering toe injury to score 24 points on 21 shots, Luke Kennard shook off a rare poor outside shooting night to add 20 of his own and Amile Jefferson dominated the paint with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Michigan State’s 18 turnovers were its undoing in the loss. Eron Harris led the Spartans with 14 points and freshman Miles Bridges had 11 points and nine rebounds, but Tom Izzo still fell to 1-10 against Mike Krzyzewski.
That Duke could handle Michigan State with ease without its three most top freshmen has to be a little scary for the rest of the nation. The freshman-laden, injury-ravaged Spartans have staggered to a 4-4 start against the nation’s toughest November schedule, however, this is still a talented team projected to contend in the Big Ten this season.
Duke has now beaten Michigan State, Penn State and Atlantic 10 favorite Rhode Island so far this season despite the absence of Giles, Tatum and Bolden. The Blue Devils’ only loss came by two points against an elite Kansas team on a last-second shot by Frank Mason in a game in which Allen didn’t even play well.
This version of Duke is a lot like the Blue Devils team that reached the Sweet 16 last March. The Blue Devils score with blistering efficiency, but they lack quality depth, they’re a bit over-reliant on the 3-pointer and they’re vulnerable against quick, athletic opponents who can attack off the dribble.
Adding Giles, Tatum and Bolden to the rotation should eliminate any depth issues, bolster the defense and inject further offensive firepower. Giles is a Chris Webber-esque power forward who’s explosive around the rim and on the glass, Tatum is a smooth, versatile swingman with a lethal mid-range game and Bolden is a long, mobile center who runs the floor well and score with his back to the basket.
It’s unclear exactly when Giles, Tatum and Bolden are expected to make their debuts, but all are expected to return soon barring setbacks in their rehabilitation.
They may need some time to shake the rust off and mesh with their teammates, but once they do, it will make an already elite Duke team even better.
– – – – – – –