It was supposed to be an opportunity for college hoops fans to get their first true taste of Duke’s much-heralded freshman class, the one that featured possible No. 1 pick Marvin Bagley III, and a few more potential first-rounders in Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr.
Instead, it was the guy who wasn’t supposed to be still calling Durham home, a player who has faced as much scrutiny as any that has hit a college campus in recent years for a trio of tripping incidents.
The kid everyone loves to hate.
“If he plays like that this season, you can lock him back in as a first-round pick, maybe a lottery pick,” one NBA general manager told ESPN. “And I’m not sure how he isn’t back in the mix as the best player in college basketball.”
With Bagley clinging to the bench — his right eye nearly swollen shut — and Duke’s other trio of freshmen unable to make perimeter shots, Allen was sensational, finishing with 37 points and knocking down a pair of 3-pointers late to seal an 88-81 win over Michigan State.
But this wasn’t the same old Allen, the guy who plays with reckless abandon — throwing his body into the lane with his arms flailing to pick up a call. Instead, it was more of the high school version — knocking down 7-of-11 shots from beyond the arc.
“He’s a great shooter, not a good shooter,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the victory.
Allen had turned into more of a driver during his sophomore and junior seasons, and the wear and tear affected his body a year ago. Then the tripping incident against Elon toyed with his mind.
So far this season, Allen has played with a free mind and a healthy body. He’s still effective penetrating the lane, but he has been lights-out from deep — converting an insane 17-of-26 from 3-point range.
Allen, who told ESPN before the season that he needed to harness his emotions and earn the respect of a talented freshman class ranked No. 1 in the country, did that and far more. He played all 40 minutes, was 11-of-20 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line as the No. 1 Blue Devils knocked off No. 2 Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night.
“I felt like I was coaching [J.J.] Redick,” Krzyzewski said after the game with a smile.
Allen started slow, and it was Bagley and Michigan State freshman big man Jaren Jackson Jr., who made their presence felt early.
However, with Duke leading 19-12 at the 10:09 mark, Bagley was inadvertently hit in the eye by teammate Javin DeLaurier and the Blue Devils appeared to lose momentum along with their most talented player. Bagley had been imposing his will, scoring four points and grabbing six rebounds in 10 minutes. He fell to the court for several minutes before being taken to the locker room. He didn’t return until the second half — when he sat on the bench for the final 20 minutes and watched with one eye open and the other nearly closed shut as Allen dominated the game.
Allen got help in the second half from Duval, who struggled with a questionable perimeter shot — but was able to utilize his speed and quickness to get into the lane and also for easy buckets out in transition.
But this was all about Allen’s presence and Bagley’s absence.
This wasn’t Elon or Utah Valley, the Blue Devils’ first two victims. This was a much-older Michigan State squad coached by a Hall of Famer in Tom Izzo and featuring preseason national player of the year Miles Bridges and Jackson — one of the promising young big men in the country. Bridges finished with 19 points, but just two of his seven field goals came within the arc. Michigan State is known for its toughness, but the Spartans were pounded on the glass, 46-34 — including allowing a staggering 25 offensive boards to a young Duke team.
But at the end, the spotlight didn’t shine on Bridges or Bagley. It was on the kid who still calls Durham home, the one who could have left and didn’t, the one who returned in hopes of adding another championship ring on his hand.
“It felt good,” Allen admitted as he flashed a wide smile in the hallway at the United Center after the game.
It was much needed. For Allen — and college basketball.