Duke Basketball: Blue Devils Have Regained Their Mojo

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 21: Grayson Allen
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 21: Grayson Allen /

Sometimes you have to fail before you can succeed. Following their spat of losing three in four games, Duke has reeled off a four game winning streak. It’s also been without Marvin Bagley III, who’s been sidelined with a knee sprain. In this resurgence, it hasn’t been major changes but improvements on simple concepts that has Duke sitting pretty at the right time.

When you think of Duke basketball, floor slapping, second to none talent, legacy and team unity come to mind. Hate is up there too for most people but the aforementioned is what comes to mind for most. The combination of second to none talent and team unity is what brings the Blue Devils to the top of the rankings every season.

This season has brought the rankings but the talent and unity have been called into question.

For almost the entire season, the rhetoric surrounding this combination of players is that the talent is there but the unity and team aspect of what makes Duke basketball what it is has been lacking. Take a look at each one of this teams losses. Defense and team ball is thrown out the window in all of them. The Blue Devils became victims of all that talent reverting back to their high school ways of isolation basketball and being more athletic than whoever their opponent was. That doesn’t win you games against elite programs in college basketball and it certainly doesn’t fit the Duke way.

Many solutions have been thrown into the mix. None of them seemed to work. Now without Marvin Bagley III, the best player in the nation, you expect Duke to play…better?

A couple of factors have been at play during Dukes four game winning streak without Bagley.

Grayson Allen Found His Swagger

For the past three seasons, Grayson Allen has been the most hated player in college basketball. Whether it’s the tripping incidents, the meltdowns on the bench or the simple fact that it’s just another talented white Duke basketball player, Allen has been under a microscope. He’s played well under it and shown flashes of being a top three player in all of college basketball. Outside of the Michigan State game where he propelled the Blue Devils to a win without Bagley and a 37 point performance, there was something off about his game.

He didn’t have that same tenacity that made him the most hated player in college basketball. Too many times when Duke needed it, he would fade out of the spotlight in favor of putting the ball into his teammates hands. He was constantly passing up open looks to get his teammates involved. By the time his teammates looked to him to take over games, he wasn’t in rhythm and for whatever reason didn’t look up to the challenge.

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In the five games without Bagley this season (including the Michigan State game in this), Allen is averaging 26.4 points on 48% shooting (including 46% from three). With Bagley? 14.1 points a game on 41% shooting (35% from three). The gap is that big. Bagley being out has forced Allen to become the primary scorer for games instead of minutes, something that he’s been comfortable with for two seasons now. It’s been a resurgence that this Blue Devils team has needed. The senior leader playing this way has taken pressure off of freshman Gary Trent, Trevon Duval and Wendell Carter Jr. It allows them to do their thing without having the pressure of doing too much.

Ewing Theory At Its Finest

If you’re not familiar with the Ewing Theory, you can read about it here. Essentially, it’s the theory that when a team with a superstar player has to play without them, they play better. A team rallies around the circumstance and plays at a higher, more focused level. Bill Simmons goes into it more in depth in that link but that’s the gist of it.

What we’ve seen from this Duke team in the last four games has been a perfect example of the Ewing Theory. Without Bagley, Duke has played substantially better on defense. They pass the eye test. The players have bought into the “team” mentality and it’s paid its dividends. Help defense has been better. Guys are getting back on defense more consistently. The offense is more of an offense instead of a collection of guys wanting to take their defender off the dribble. Hustle plays that won’t show up in box scores have increased. The permanent switch to a 2-3 zone has been the best change Coach K has done all season.

There are a couple of aspects that have been at play since Bagley went out that apply to the Ewing Theory. The offense running through Grayson Allen has been a godsend. Getting good minutes from the bench, instead of just filler minutes, has churned out positive results. Marques Bolden developing an improving post game has been a tremendous help for Carter. It’s been a complete 180 for the team we saw for the first 80% of the regular season.

Now all of this isn’t to say that the Blue Devils are better without Bagley. That’s an insane statement that nobody should truly believe. You want your best players on the floor. What has developed is a greater sense of the word team and the pride of playing with the name Duke on the front of the jersey. Bagley coming back isn’t going to throw a wrench in this. It should only improve it.

Duke and Grayson Allen have found themselves at the perfect time. With the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament right around the corner, the Blue Devils look like the National Championship contender we expected them to be when the season started.