LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Duke’s status as the ultimate lightning-rod program in college basketball is undisputed.
But whether you either love or hate the Blue Devils, the strong feelings come all the more naturally when they are led by a lightning-rod player.
Grayson Allen, you are what Ben Franklin had in mind when he invented the lightning rod. You are the worthy heir to the Christian Laettner, J.J. Redick throne. You are the next adorable/deplorable Caucasian Dukie, depending on your point of view.
(For whatever reason, the Caucasian part of the equation matters to a lot of people.)
Allen is a brilliant performer and competitor, fearless and athletic and skilled. He’s capable of coming off the bench to score 16 points in the national championship game as a true freshman. He’s also capable of scoring 29 points at Louisville on Saturday, putting a wounded team on his back in a fierce atmosphere less than 72 hours after a heroic game at North Carolina.
He’s also capable of giving Duke haters enough ammo to shell him relentlessly – just like Laettner and Redick did. He’s a great player who throws his body around and throws himself into some chippy situations, with considerable gusto. He can play like a jerk, in the best and worst sense.
In two games against Louisville in the past 12 days, Allen added the following to his stat line:
• An intentional trip of Cardinals forward Ray Spalding, resulting in a flagrant foul call on Allen.
• An elbow in the face from Cardinals forward Jaylen Johnson in the midst of a loose-ball scrum that featured some flying fists and forearms, resulting in a flagrant foul call on Johnson, who needed to be pulled away from Allen. After the game, Johnson told The Courier-Journal that he responded angrily because Allen hit him first.
• A technical foul for some screamed profanity after fouling out on a charge call.
Allen’s foul-out temper tantrum with 3:55 left punctuated Duke’s come-from-ahead loss, 71-64. Krzyzewski wasn’t going to criticize his guy for it.
“What happens to Grayson sometimes [driving to the basket] is just unbelievable,” K said. “Just unbelievable. ... You take a look at that play. It’s not close – whatever close means.
“Look, he’s been beat up all season, and he’s a warrior. He doesn’t get what he’s a warrior for at times.”
In other words, he doesn’t get enough calls according to his coach. (This might be the place to point out that Allen is averaging 6.7 free throws per game, most by a Blue Devil since Mason Plumlee averaged 7.0 in 2012-13 and most by a Duke guard since Jon Scheyer averaged 7.2 in 2009-10. This might also be the place to cock an ear and listen for Virginia fans screaming about what happened last week at Cameron Indoor Stadium.)
Allen clearly felt he deserved the call Saturday, not the charge he was given that ended his afternoon.
“Would we like him not to have that [technical foul-worthy] reaction? Yes,” Krzyzewski said. “Do we understand why he had that reaction? Yes.”
That reaction will be added to Allen’s highlight reel. The big shots, the relentless drives, the floor burns, the deliberate trip – and now the “F------ bull----" lip-read technical.
Yes, he will fill the hero/antihero role quite well for the remainder of his time in a Duke uniform.
The fact that the Blue Devils led for almost the entire first 33 minutes was a testament to their resolute toughness, given their fearful lack of depth – Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones were out hurt, leaving Krzyzewski with a six-man rotation. When point guard Derryck Thornton hurt his right shoulder with nine minutes left, Duke was out of bodies and out of gas against a relentless team playing like this was their NCAA tournament.
And K was out of patience with the officiating. He’d gotten his own technical 69 seconds before Allen was T’d up.
“I thought the physicality of the game caught up with us more than the physicality of the week,” Krzyzewski said afterward, simmering on low boil. “It was the most physical second half we’ve ever been in, this year. We weren’t able to respond at the appropriate level to it.”
K was asked: around the basket, or on the perimeter?
“Everywhere,” he said. “The intensity and physicality of the game did not lend itself to us. With injuries and foul trouble, it wasn’t a good combination for us. Our kids fought their hearts out. We thought they put themselves in position to be deserving of winning, and so we are disappointed in that.
“My guys have been unbelievable, and they were unbelievable in how they were warriors today. The limits were stretched today.”
I asked Krzyzewski about his breaking point, what he was disputing when he was T’d up.
“You want a list?” he responded. “It’ll come out in my book when I’m 80.”
Until then, Krzyzewski has to nurse this thin team through the rest of February and into March with something left in the tank. Part of Duke’s sell to great players is plenty of minutes – K plays a short rotation and often has just a few scholarship players on the bench. This team has eight scholarship guys.
That’s fine if your team can avoid injuries. Duke has not avoided them.
Jefferson has only played in nine games, and Krzyzewski said Saturday his status is “the same.” He doesn’t know when the senior forward will be back.
After severely rolling his ankle at North Carolina, Jones surprised a lot of people by warming up and suiting up here, but he never entered the game. Krzyzewski said he expects him back for Duke’s next game, against Florida State on Thursday.
And now Thornton’s shoulder is the latest Duke body part on Injury Watch. He was in obvious pain but returned to the game late, and even made a couple of shots to keep the Blue Devils in it. Krzyzewski said he was hoping it’s just a contusion and he won’t miss time.
While waiting for players to return, Duke has to make sure the healthy ones don’t run out of gas down the stretch of a long season. Nobody has played more minutes than Grayson Allen, and nobody will be more important going forward.
He’s become a must-watch. Because he’s really good, mostly, but also because he’s easy for Duke haters to root against.