In his fourth season at Duke, Grayson Allen can now appreciate what it was like for Quinn Cook during Allen’s freshman year, when the senior was often surrounded on the court by four freshman players, even if Allen only became one of them at the end of the season.
“When you’re really the only guy and there are no seniors on the bench, either, it’s different,” Allen said. “I really feel for what Quinn was going through. And I have that much respect for Quinn for being such a good leader for us.”
After spending the first two games of this season in the same predicament – joined in the starting lineup by freshmen Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval – his new appreciation for what Cook was going through is less crucial to Duke than his ability to replicate what Cook did to help that team along to a national title. That responsibility really takes hold Tuesday night, when Duke’s young roster will face not only its toughest test of the season so far, but what could potentially be its toughest game of the regular season.
There was a time, not long ago, when sophomores were not considered college-basketball veterans, but that time has passed, and by that standard, Michigan State is a veteran team that returns almost the entire roster that lost at Cameron last fall, with four sophomore starters including preseason national player of the year Miles Bridges. It’s also a very talented one, separated from No. 1 Duke in the polls by a mere 21 first-place votes – albeit one that has lost 13 straight against Duke and North Carolina in one of the sport’s oddest streaks.
Against Elon and Utah Valley, there wasn’t much for Allen to do as a leader; the wildly skilled Blue Devils could free-lance their way through those games nearly at will. But this game – a neutral-site showcase against an championship-caliber opponent – is a different kind of animal, one Duke’s freshman have never experienced before, even if they think they have as elite recruits, and they will almost certainly need some kind of guidance from Allen to play their best, whether that’s before the game or during.
For Allen, though, he’s being asked to provide more than mere senior leadership for a young team. If he is to put last year’s shame and shenanigans behind him, it must begin now, on this national stage, in the biggest nonconference game on Duke’s schedule. And he can do that, regardless of his individual performance, by ensuring his young teammates adjust to these conditions.
This is Duke’s first real test and it is the first real test of Allen’s search for redemption. If he is going to unite rather than divide, if he is going to be a fulcrum for success instead of a distraction, he can demonstrate that to the world Tuesday with his performance, with his attitude and body language, with his leadership – at least to the degree, with the latter, that can be perceived by the outward world.
Whatever Allen is going to be this season, for better or worse, what happens Tuesday – in this crucible of attention and top-level competition – will put that on display in a way Duke’s first two games never could, just as Michigan State is going to demand a level of performance from Duke that the Blue Devils have not yet reached.
It’s a big game for Duke, but there will be others later this season. It’s an even bigger game for Allen, his first chance to show a national audience what he can bring to the court as a player and leader, how he’s changed, how he’s grown, how he’s doing the same thing for these freshmen Cook did for his class – or not. Either way, the weekend’s games aside, Allen’s final year at Duke will start to take shape Tuesday night.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock