DURHAM, N.C. -- For all of the focus on what Duke doesn’t have this season -- which, at the moment, includes a ranking beside its name, as well as injured senior forward Amile Jefferson -- it’s time to take a closer look at what is working.
Freshman forward Brandon Ingram and sophomore guard Grayson Allen are working quite well. There’s not another duo in the ACC that scores as much as they do. There really aren’t many more pairs in the nation that have been as gifted at scoring as Ingram and Allen.
Virginia knows this firsthand after watching Ingram carry Duke with 13 first-half points en route to a game-high 25. Ingram was scoring with such ease that Virginia coach Tony Bennett switched his best defender, Malcolm Brogdon, from Allen to Ingram.
Of course, once the change was made, Allen scored nine of the Blue Devils' last 12 points, including the game winner in Duke’s 63-62 victory.
“It’s hard because Allen is so aggressive and he can get going into the lane and draw some fouls, but Ingram can rise up,” Bennett said. “We just had to pick our poison in a way.”
It’s a challenge that not many other opponents present. Allen leads the Blue Devils in scoring 20.6 points per game and Ingram adds 17.2 points per contest. Among major-conference players, only Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins have a higher combined scoring average.
Then again, just about anyone could be paired with Hield and his 25.7 points per game and be leading in that category. The Duke tandem is more balanced: Allen has had 11 games this season scoring 20 or more points, while Ingram has done it nine times, including Saturday’s outburst.
The best thing for Duke: The team has come to understand that the offense has to go through Allen and Ingram to win.
“A lot of people just play on us,” Ingram said. “We look for other guys too; I think they get more open off of us.”
Sometimes they need reminders. The difference between now and earlier in the season is that Ingram and Allen feel confident enough to demand the ball.
Well before Allen’s buzzer-beating heroics, he curled off a pick early in the second half, expecting Derryck Thornton to deliver the ball. While Thornton dribbled and looked elsewhere, Allen stood and slightly shrugged with his hands outward as if to say, "Pass me the ball." When Duke called timeout and Thornton headed toward the huddle, Allen made his point verbally with words not fit for print.
When it came winning time, the team knew the ball would be in one of two sets of hands.
“I figured it was going to be either me or Brandon,” Allen said. “He pretty much carried us the whole game and put us in position to win there at the end.”
Two players who know better than most what Allen and Ingram are capable of returned to Cameron Indoor Stadium as spectators. Thanks to the NBA’s All-Star break, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones came back for a game for the first time since helping Duke win the national title last season.
“We said all the time last year that [Allen] was our best player in practice,” Okafor said. "He was super-aggressive, super-gifted. It doesn’t surprise me or anybody else in this locker room [that he’s having a successful season]."
Okafor and Jones were present during the summer for some pickup games with Ingram. He played the kind of game against Virginia that lends folks to think he could join Okafor and Jones in staying only one year on campus.
“Special,” Jones said of the freshman. “It takes a special talent to do things like that. It’s his unique size and skill. He has the ability to take games over.”
Duke will continue to need Ingram and Allen to take over, as Jefferson’s return to the lineup looks more and more like it might not come until next season. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game he didn’t plan on shutting down Jefferson with the thought of seeking a redshirt just yet.
The bone in Jefferson’s foot has healed, but Krzyzewski said Jefferson still has pain when he tries to play on it.
“I don’t want to go there right now,” Krzyzewski said. “It has been two months though, that’s why what our guys have done has been remarkable. I am very proud of them. We just have to stay healthy.”
And also get Ingram or Allen the ball.