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The (Tobacco) Road To The Final Four: More Duke Drama

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While Duke guard Grayson Allen returned, Coach K temporarily departed. Plus, has the real Donovan Mitchell emerged for Louisville?


Ahead of back surgery that will sideline him for an indefinite amount of time, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski reinstated guard Grayson Allen into the starting lineup for last Wednesday night’s 110-57 throttling of Georgia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham after the junior missed just one game for tripping Elon’s Steven Santa Ana. On Dec. 22, Coach K announced that Allen had been suspended indefinitely after his third tripping incident (previous mishaps occurred last season against Louisville and Florida State). “Indefinitely,” as it turned out, meant one game. Krzyzewski said the reinstatement process included talks with Allen and Duke athletic director Kevin White.

Perhaps there was enough discipline that went on behind closed doors, enough teaching moments from Coach K to Allen outside of the public’s eyes. And perhaps Allen indeed learned his lesson. That should have been the No. 1 priority all along: making sure the 21-year-old recognizes his issues and fixes them.

But one game?

Allen was one of three team captains, but he was stripped of those duties following his suspension. While that certainly had to hurt, was that enough? What else did the punishment entail? And what does it say about Allen’s captaincy that after the latest tripping incident, while he was throwing his tantrum on the bench, Blue Devil teammates didn’t seem to rally around Allen. Players weren’t reaching out to him. That seems telling.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

While I didn’t think anything less than a three-game hiatus was fair, the real issue I have is that the suspension did not come down from the ACC league office. Despite league commissioner John Swofford coming out shortly after the suspension was announced and saying he agreed with the move, this should not have been a decision coming from the Duke coaching staff. After Allen established a track record of repetitive poor behavior, the punishment should have come from the league office. It would have sent the right message to Duke, the other teams in the conference and the rest of the country.

We can all safely assume that Coach K has helped Allen the last two weeks during his suspension. Whether Allen simply became lost in the competitiveness of games multiple times—three times—or there was something else at work, we should all hope that sufficient counsel and advice was given over the last 14 days to address Allen’s issue and help with his problem.

But one game?

There is no doubt that Allen needs to be a big factor for Duke to once again cut down the nets on the season’s final night of action. The Blue Devils went 0-1 without Allen, falling to Virginia Tech last Saturday, as Luke Kennard and the team’s heralded freshmen were down by as many as 20 and never led. Allen scored 15 against the Yellow Jackets in his return to the lineup, and Duke looked much more fluid offensively with Allen at the point. That cohesiveness and familiarity has not been there consistently this season.

Hopefully, though, his impact on the lineup was the least of Coach K’s concern when he decided to reinstate Allen after just a one-game absence.

…The Allen drama is just one of many obstacles that the Blue Devils have faced this season. Injuries to Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden preceded the Allen tripping incident against Elon and subsequent suspension. Now, Duke will be without Coach K for the next month due to his surgery, which further adds to the adversity this team has faced in 2016-17. Acting head coach Jeff Capel is in a tough spot, although it’s one that ultimately could benefit him. If the next month proves successful, it will be a mini-audition of sorts for the head gig when Coach K steps aside. The former Blue Devils point guard had success as the head coach at VCU and Oklahoma, so the position as Krzyzewski’s successor is his to lose. After all, he is Coach K’s top assistant. But this is a team desperate for leadership and stability, so the loss of Coach K for probably seven league games comes at the worst time. However, there are few coaches more suited for this role than Capel, who was last a head coach in 2010-11 but went 30-6 with an Elite Eight appearance in 2008-09 with the Sooners.

We have not seen the best version of Duke yet, and we probably won’t until the last few weeks of the year. But if the Blue Devil players can rally around Capel—and each other—until Coach K returns (possibly against Pitt on Feb. 4), then it could set up for a long run in March.

…Donovan Mitchell broke out of a slump to score a career-high 25 points as Louisville beat Indiana, 77-62, in Indianapolis last Saturday. The explosive sophomore guard had shot just 16-of-54 from the floor in his previous five games, and his struggles prompted head coach Rick Pitino to keep him out of the starting lineup for the first time all season. The benching must have lit a spark. Against the Hoosiers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a confident-looking Mitchell scored on drives to the basket, a career-high four 3-pointers as well as at the charity stripe. The Cardinals entered the game against IU with one of the nation’s best defenses, and they held the Hoosiers to 32 percent from the field and just four 3-pointers. It was rough to watch, as IU came in with one of the best field-goal percentages in the country. But The ‘Ville needed a star-studded game from Mitchell because its offense needs a go-to guy. It was just one game, but it could go down as one of the more crucial game of Louisville’s season if Mitchell has truly turned the corner and is ready to consistently play like a star.

…Florida State passed the first of six straight tough tests, as the Seminoles are coming off of a road win at Virginia. The difficult slate continues, though, with a date against Virginia Tech. After the contest with the Hokies, Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Louisville finish out the gauntlet. All of those squads, of course, are ranked in the Top 25. Getting out of that stretch at 3-3 would be considered fantastic. VT is coming off of a 104-78 road loss to NC State in which the Hokies struggled defending mightily, especially in the first half. FSU will get the Hokies at home, but expect a better effort from Buzz Williams and Co.

Saturday’s best game

No. 21 Virginia Tech at No. 12 Florida State, 2 p.m. ET, ACC Network: It’s been a crazy week in the ACC, especially for the Hokies. After controlling the entire game in a home win over Duke last Saturday, VT dropped a 104-78 blowout loss to NC State in Raleigh. The game was the most recent in a trio of upset losses in the ACC (Florida State over Virginia in Charlottesville and Georgia Tech over UNC in Atlanta were the others). This is a big spot for the Hokies, as we are all waiting to see if they can be a legitimate threat in the conference. I believe this is a tournament team after being denied a bid last year, but efforts like the one against a Wolfpack squad allergic to defense cannot bring me to believe that VT will challenge for a spot in the league’s upper-tier crust. Expect the Hokies to bring a better effort in Tallahassee, but it’s hard to see the Seminoles dropping this one at home.

MORE: College Basketball Weekend Primer – Best Games, Bets For Jan. 6-8

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