By Rob Dauster / NBC News
INDIANAPOLIS — Grayson Allen had accepted that his role on this Duke team was going to be as the most highly-decorated member of Duke’s bench mob, a McDonald’s All-American relegated to mop-up duty and garbage time, the Cohiba of college basketball’s victory cigars.
When Duke played in the Champions Classic, Allen played exactly one minute. When the Blue Devils played at Wisconsin in December, Allen didn’t set foot on the floor. It wasn’t until Duke’s visit to Virginia, four days after another DNP-CD at Notre Dame and three days after Rasheed Sulaimon was kicked off the team, that Allen played more than eight minutes against an opponent from a power conference.
“I did get down, and I think that hurt me,” Allen said. “I was falling into spectator mode on the bench, not expecting to get in, not acting like I was part of the team on the bench. Just watching.”
He made the assumption that most of us had, that getting stuck at the wrong end of Duke’s back court depth chart meant that he was destined to be next year’s star. That he just needed to bide his time until it was his turn.
Not all freshmen are meant to be one-and-done.
But where Allen’s attitude didn’t change was in practice. Jahlil Okafor called him Duke’s best player away from the bright lights of nationally televised games. Assistant coach Jon Scheyer agreed. Justise Winslow said no one on the team wants to get matched up with Allen because, “he’s been so aggressive, he’s been a dog.”
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski affectionately refers to Allen the practice player as an “a–hole”.
All that “a–hole” needed was his chance.
The talk leading into Monday night’s national title game centered around the centers, Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky and the entirely too perfect dichotomy between Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin program and what Duke has turned into in recent seasons. No one embraces the idea of developing players over the course of four or five years the way that Ryan does, turning a three-star recruit in Kaminsky into the one guy that could beat out Okafor, a surefire lottery pick and the nation’s top prospect since the time he was 14, for National Player of the Year.
And while it was Duke’s three-headed one-and-done monster, the focal point of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, that got all the attention, it was Allen, the seldom-used and oft-forgotten fourth member of that class, that delivered the Devils their fifth national title under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, a 68-63 win over Wisconsin in Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night.
Duke was up against it with 13 minutes left. Wisconsin was in the midst of a 17-8 surge to open the second half, a stretch where their offense, the nation’s most efficient, started clicking. In the process, they managed to draw the third foul on both Okafor and Justise Winslow, who had been Duke’s best player in the tournament.
“We were close [to dead in the water],” Coach K said. “Foul trouble, nine point deficit, they’re functioning.”
It started with a three that cut Wisconsin’s lead to 48-42. On the ensuing possession, he stole the ball from Traevon Jackson, following that up with a driving, and-one layup. After Hayes buried a three that seemed to stop Duke’s surge, Coach K called Allen’s number, waving off Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook to get Allen in a one-on-one situation in one of the national title game’s most important possessions. Allen delivered again, drawing another foul and hitting both of those free throws.
And then, with 5:29 left and the score tied, Allen once again had his name called by Coach K. Allen took the ball on the left wing, beat Wisconsin’s best defender, Josh Gasser, to the rim and finished a tough, contested layup that gave the Blue Devils their first lead since there was 2:55 left in the first half. In total, Allen finished with 16 points, 10 of which came after halftime.
“I don’t think we win without him,” Scheyer said. Allen credited Scheyer, as much as anyone in the program, with helping him keep the right mindset in practice, with helping him realize that his chance was coming, that he needed to stay ready. “It’s no surprise, but the magnitude at which he did it was cool to see. You don’t know that that’s going to happen.”
After Duke reclaimed the lead, Duke went back to what we know: The Tyus and Jahlil Show. After Allen’s go-ahead layup, Wisconsin scored back-to-back buckets before Jones buried a contested three off the dribble from the top of the key. Okafor followed that up with arguably the biggest sequence of his career to date. He scored at one end — just his eighth point of the game — and then stopped Kaminsky one-on-one at the other end. On the ensuing possession, Okafor grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a putback, following that up by challenging a Bronson Koenig runner, forcing a miss that turned into a turnover.
On Duke’s next possession, Jones hit another deep, pull-up three that made the score 66-58 and, in all reality, ensured that the Blue Devils would win the national title. Jones finished with 23 points, getting named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
“There’s just something about him that he knows when to take over,” Winslow said of Jones.
The Blue Devils needed every point and every play that Jones and Allen had to offer. Okafor, Duke’s best player all season and their first-team all-american, finished with just 10 points, three boards and four fouls. Winslow had nine boards and three blocks, but he was just 3-for-9 from the floor and, like Okafor, missed a number of shots at the rim he usually finishes.
“I expect my teammates to have my back and me to have their back as well,” Okafor said of an off-night he refused to call an off-night. “My expectations coming into the day was to win a national title, and we did that.”
Allen may not be the best NBA prospect on Duke’s roster, but he has the potential to be the next “Most Hated Dukie in America”, following in the footsteps of Christian Laettner and Steve Wojciechowski and J.J. Redick.
He’s white. He’s really good. He plays the game like an “a–hole”.
“I’m out there getting underneath people’s skin and being aggressive, probably overly aggressive,” Allen said. “That will annoy people and get under people’s skin.”
And if he does end up being the guy the nation loves to hate?
“If that comes with winning national championships,” Allen said, smiling from ear to ear, “I’ll take it.”