The Indiana Hoosiers played the absolute best game they could against Duke last night. They shot 50.8 percent from the field against the No. 1 team in the country, limited themselves to nine turnovers, and got a promising career-best game from sophomore big man De’Ron Davis.
All that bought them was 35 minutes of competitive basketball. Indiana held a 73-69 lead with 6:29 remaining, but after Duke tied it at 76 with five minutes to go, the Hoosiers didn’t make another shot from the field. The Blue Devils stayed hot and eventually left Bloomington with a well-earned 91-81 win.
This was Duke’s third straight victory that saw them get into trouble early but come storming back for an impressive win. The day after Thanksgiving, they won an overtime game against Texas in which they were losing by 16 with eight-and-a-half minutes left, and two days later they prevailed in a Florida battle where they outscored the Gators 30-10 in the last 10 minutes to win by three. Superficially, this is not a dominant team right now, and they’re lucky to be 9-0 after the first month of the season. But given how heavily reliant Duke is on freshmen and that they’ve faced a fairly grueling non-conference schedule so far, this undefeated start could augur big things to come.
For most sane people, this news is depressing. Head coach Mick Krizilonski remains a humorless prick, and Duke’s most famous player, Grayson Allen, is just the latest in the too-long line of annoying Duke men. He plays dirty, shows off-putting levels of rage, and inspires subconscious disgust at every touch with his Ted Cruz-looking face. Aside from Allen’s villainy, it just plain sucks when a tight-ass, rigidly boring school like Duke is the best team in college basketball.
But what if I told you [braces and shuts eyes tight] that this Duke team is actually fun? That, if you blind yourself to the uniform colors and the old dude on the sideline yelling at officials until he’s red in the face, it is possible to enjoy Duke basketball this year? In fact, if this group of freshmen continues on the track they’re on, they have the potential to be the most exciting and interesting college hoops team since the nearly undefeated Kentucky squad of 2014-15.
It starts, unsurprisingly, with Marvin Bagley, a 6-foot-11 18-year-old who’s a clear early frontrunner for player of the year. Since getting knocked out with an eye injury in a marquee matchup versus Michigan State, Bagley has made up for lost time this week, averaging 29.0 points and 13.3 rebounds per game against Texas, Florida, and Indiana, while only sitting for a total of four minutes across all three games (which, again, all took place in less than a week). Bagley has immediately become Duke’s superstar, drawing a Tim Duncan comparison from David Robinson that doesn’t even feel like hyperbole. Look at his well-beyond-his-years strength and wherewithal in the post last night:
Admittedly, many of his points in the paint come simply from the fact that Bagley stands taller and jumps higher than the vast majority of his peers—an advantage that won’t carry over to the NBA. But the freshman also passes well when he has to, needs to be guarded on the perimeter, and makes great decisions quickly. There’s a certain electric thrill to every aspect of Bagley’s game, as he continues to confidently pull new abilities out of his seemingly endless arsenal. Check out this sequence against Florida, where he guards a smaller man outside, snatches a block, and runs down the floor for an athletic finish:
That’s a combination of skills that you don’t often see at the college level.
(And for a fun bonus round, here are three completely different great plays all made by Bagley against Texas.)
Valuable in their own right are Bagley’s fellow first-years: Trevon Duval, a point guard, and Wendell Carter, a center. Carter, at 259 pounds, is a strong, imposing presence right under the basket, both on offense and defense. The baskets he gets are ugly and almost exclusively close to the rim, but they get the job done. He’s shooting 63.9 percent from the field, with double-doubles in more than half of his games.
Duval, meanwhile, is the opposite, evoking De’Aaron Fox with his ability to get steals and distribute the ball, even if his shot isn’t quite there yet. He’s only made a third of his field goals in the last three games, but a 17 point/10 assist/six steal night against Michigan State showcased how high his ceiling is. (Small forward Gary Trent also starts as a freshman, and while he has yet to find his stroke from three, he could bump the offense into a whole new gear if defenses have to start worrying about him, too.)
And then of course there’s Duke’s lone senior, the dreaded Grayson Allen, who (probably rightfully) draws all the hate and reinforces every stereotype of the whiny yet infuriatingly successful Dookie. But Allen, so far, is playing a diminished role this year. In 2016-17, according to KenPom, he used 25 percent of Duke’s possessions, more than lottery pick Luke Kennard and second to current Celtics rookie sensation Jayson Tatum. But in the first nine games of this season, that number has dropped down to 19.9 percent, making him fourth on his team behind Bagley, Duval, and Carter. He’s more Klay Thompson than Steph Curry this fall, stepping up to provide firepower beyond the arc (like when he went 7-11 from three against Michigan State) but otherwise letting his talented teammates handle the load.
As a supporting character, and not the main guy you unavoidably have to root for, Allen is at his best—especially from a non-Duke fan perspective. He brings energy and leadership, and he makes key plays, but when he’s not the focus, it’s easier to relax and enjoy the game. Allen is an unforgettable college player, for both good and bad reasons, but in this set-up—surrounded by exciting, intriguing prospects with limitless potential—he serves as the oil that makes the offense run smoothly, drawing attention from defenses and moving smartly away from the ball to give guys like Bagley and Duval the conditions they need to be awesome.
You still shouldn’t root for Duke. But maybe, just maybe, it won’t be painful to watch them try and steamroll through the best conference in college basketball this winter. They’re still a team with flaws—namely on defense, where incisive passes can make them look very much like a unit that has only played nine games together—and with a concerning lack of depth, they’re not quite Peak Kentucky 2.0 (KenPom gives them a 0.3 percent chance of going undefeated). But if you’re a neutral fan looking for a team that will most consistently provide you with the most enjoyable viewing experience, then I’m sorry to say that you might be watching a lot of Duke games this year.