In what will likely be one of the games of the season in college basketball, the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils topped the No. 2 Michigan State Spartans, 88-81, in the Champions Classic at the United Center on Tuesday evening.
The Blue Devils took a 10-point lead at two different points in the game (once in the first half and once in the second), but it was a back-and-forth affair for most of the evening.
Without their top recruit and arguably their best player, Marvin Bagley III (who left with an eye injury in the first half and didn’t return), the Blue Devils were able to ride 37 points from senior Grayson Allen and clutch play down the stretch of the game.
So what did we learn from this top two showdown? I’ve got five takeaways:
1. Sophomore Grayson Allen is back
Between his third tripping incident, a meltdown on the Duke bench and nagging injuries, Allen’s junior campaign was a season to forget. The 6’5″ guard averaged just 14.5 points, shot below 40 percent from the field and averaged nearly a rebound less than he did in his sophomore year.
Allen went from a Preseason National Player of the Year candidate to the third-best scorer on his team and a sidekick to Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard.
But on Tuesday night against MSU, Allen proved that he is finally back to the old Grayson Allen, the one that averaged nearly 22 points per game in his second year.
Allen poured in 37 points (!) on 11-of-20 shooting overall and hit SEVEN threes, including two in the final three minutes. His sweet stroke was back. His ability to glide in the lane and finish over defenders was back. And his body control when finishing around the rim was back.
He was the best player on a court filled with five-star recruits, McDonald’s All-Americans and future lottery picks. Allen wasn’t just good, he was great, and in turn, that helped Duke overcome the loss of Bagley and earn what will likely be one of the best resume-boosting victories of the season.
2. Duke, Michigan State look like they are in a class above the rest
After watching both games of the Champions Classic last night, one thing was very evident: Duke and Michigan State are in a class of their own. Kansas and Kentucky are both top five teams, but they clearly (based on the action from last night) aren’t on the same level as the Blue Devils and Spartans at this point in the season.
The Blue Devils are loaded with talent at every position, have the depth to overcome any issues and are a force on the glass. Add in the fact that they looked really really good without the number one recruit in the nation, and Duke is likely to get even better as the year progresses.
The Spartans are also a dominant team that possesses top-notch talent and depth. Coach K’s squad may be a bit inexperienced, but Tom Izzo’s unit has five upperclassmen and a sophomore in Miles Bridges who should be in the NBA right now.
The Jayhawks and Wildcats both looked inefficient and ineffective on offense in their matchup. Kansas has a lack of size on the interior and Devonte’ Graham was pressing. Meanwhile, Kentucky is still figuring out their point guard situation and are one of the youngest teams in the nation.
Right now, Duke and Michigan State are the elite of the elite.
3. Trevon Duval looks like the answer at point
Dating back to their last National Championship when Tyus Jones ran the show, the Blue Devils have had consistent questions at the point guard position.
This has led to early NCAA Tournament exits, including last year’s second round debacle against South Carolina.
Well, it looks like the program finally found their answer on Tuesday night.
Five-star guard Trevon Duval was sensational — especially in the second half — as he put up 17 points, 10 assists, six steals and three rebounds. The freshman showed his ability to balance his own scoring tendencies with running the offense crisply and efficiently.
Duval still needs to work on his outside jump shot (he was 7-of-20 from the field and didn’t make a three) and his free throw shooting, but he can finish tough shots at the rim, remains under control for the most part and is active defensively. His strength and toughness are two traits that Duke hasn’t seen at their lead guard position in years.
4. Michigan State struggled on the glass but have an elite front court
The Spartans allowed 25 offensive rebounds to a Bagley-less Blue Devils team. 25!!
I think this says more about Duke’s front court than Michigan State’s, but the painted arena was supposed to be the strength of Izzo’s roster.
MSU goes six deep on the interior and that’s not counting Bridges, who played the four-position all of last season. Nick Ward is a bruiser and Jaren Jackson Jr. has length that has scouts drooling over his production. They also bring Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter, Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman off the bench.
The Spartans should have more concern about the 17 turnovers they committed and attacking zone defenses, but capitalizing on the advantage their team should have every game should also be a focal point.
5. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a top 10 pick
While NBA scouts had their eyes on Bridges (19 points) and Bagley (six rebounds before leaving), Jackson was hard to miss on Tuesday evening. The 6’11” five-star freshman scored 19 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked three shots. He knocked down 3-of-5 threes and shot a highly efficient 70 percent from the field.
On the season, Jackson is averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds, and has seven total blocks.
So what will make him so coveted at the next level?
First of all, Jackson doesn’t have to score a point to impact a game. He has unbelievable length, athleticism and mobility that helps him on the defensive end of the floor and on the glass.
Second, Jackson is a new-age NBA big man because of his ability to score inside and out. His shooting motion needs to be refined, but he has good touch and can stretch the floor with efficiency.
The forward may not earn the publicity of a Bridges or a Bagley or an Allen, however, he is now well known across the country after last night’s performance.