Duke embraces Grayson Allen and role as heel in comeback win over Louisville

NEW YORK – Grayson Allen had done it again – escalated tension, brought the arena to an emotional boil, forced everyone in attendance to take a very strong stance for or against the Blue Devil in black.

Allen did what only he can do in college basketball. In a transient sport that for years has lacked central figures who actually wear uniforms, he sucked up the spotlight, absorbing all the love and hate that came with it.

He scored 10 points in a six-minute stretch to energize Duke’s second-half comeback against Louisville on Thursday in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals. At the end of that run, and with the Barclays Center buzzing, Mike Krzyzewski seized the moment to sub for his lightning-rod guard – perhaps to keep things from getting too heated.

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Then Coach K greeted him at the bench like it was an airport reunion. The old Grayson – chippy, fiery, cheap, choose your own modifier – was back.

Krzyzewski bear-hugged Allen, a remarkable display in the middle of a glove-tight game. And in that moment, it was quite clear: Duke is fine with Allen the antagonist, fine with Allen the villain, fine with Allen the boo magnet, fine with the program’s heel turn.

As long as it works like this.

“Look, I love Grayson,” Krzyzewski said afterward, when Duke had secured a pulsating, 81-77 victory over the Cardinals to reach the ACC semis and a third game against North Carolina this season. “Grayson, I got his back all the time. And everyone in our program has his back all the time. The public eye on our program is a blessing and can be a curse. So we have to be able to deal with all of it.

“The thing in dealing with all of it is for everyone to know that we’re together. I believe in him. I love him. And I thought what he did today was sensational. I loved it. He was himself today.”

Duke doesn't appear to have any problem with Grayson Allen's questionable reputation. They seem to have even embraced it. (Getty)
Duke doesn’t appear to have any problem with Grayson Allen’s questionable reputation. They seem to have even embraced it. (Getty)

Allen being himself meant 18 points, the most he’s scored in a game in exactly a month, and he scored them 24 hours after being shut out for the first time in two years. It also meant Allen getting involved in a brief, after-the-whistle entanglement with Louisville reserve guard David Levitch that made everyone in the arena angry, on one side or the other. And then it meant Allen taking a dive after shooting a 3-pointer and luring the officials into calling a three-shot foul on Levitch.

Log another entry in the long and heralded history of Duke flops.

When the junior guard stepped to the line and the boos rained down, it was just about peak hatred for a neutral-court game. And when he sank all three free throws, it was just about peak Grayson.

“Energy produces energy,” Krzyzewski said. “… Grayson has played three years all out, all out, all out. That was an example of it, and his teammates and everyone responded.

“And the people who don’t want us to win, they responded. God bless everyone. But energy produced more energy.”

His teammates responded to Allen’s energy source, raising their level of animation to match the crowd’s and momentarily knock a hard-nosed Louisville team back on its heels.

A game that was in danger of becoming a Louisville walkover turned on two things: Duke’s switch to zone and Grayson Allen’s fire-starter run.

“When he competes and is fighting hard like he was today, it spreads to the entire team,” said Luke Kennard, who was brilliant in producing 24 points and 10 rebounds.

The only real fight Allen showed Wednesday in Duke’s win over Clemson earned him a technical foul. After being called for a foul, Allen slammed down the ball and bellowed out an F-bomb, part of a dismal game that featured two-year lows in minutes (12) and points (none). It continued a month-long struggle, which prompted questions about whether Duke could count on him in the March crucible.

In a high-level game between two teams that could make deep NCAA runs, Allen could be counted on – to deliver, and to infuriate.

Last year, when Allen first morphed into college basketball Churl In Residence, some people referred to him as Christian Laettner on training wheels. But by now, Allen has surpassed Laettner and J.J. Redick and everyone else on the Disliked Dukie List.

And if Duke wasn’t already the most disliked program in the country – Kentucky would be the strongest competition for that honor – it almost certainly is now. But as Krzyzewski alluded to, the Blue Devils have bonded amidst the dislike.

And in the process, Duke’s one-and-done mill has produced an antihero with staying power in junior Grayson Allen.

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