Old player, old story: Grayson Allen leads No. 1 Duke past No. 2 MSU
Ran into Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips at the United Center before the much-anticipated hoops clash Tuesday between No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Michigan State — won by the Blue Devils 88-81 — and the sight of him in his purple tie just plain made me smile.
There’ve been plenty of years when the juxtaposition of Wildcats basketball and the blue bloods of the college game would’ve bordered on the absurd. But right now? Not so much. An NCAA tournament breakthrough and Top 25 ranking have redefined Northwestern.
So I suggested to Phillips that maybe his Cats could hang with the Blue Devils and Spartans.
‘‘Yeah, OK,’’ he said — the way one might say it when he thinks some bigmouth is yanking his chain — before taking his leave.
I probably had been only half-serious. Michigan State, for example, certainly has its history of storming to Final Fours under Tom Izzo, yet the Spartans have the same number of national titles as Northwestern — or Illinois or DePaul, for that matter — since their last one in 2000. Which was the last time a Big Ten team cut down the nets.
Yet Duke is, needless to say, on another plane altogether. The Blue Devils have won it all three times in the 2000s and five times overall under Mike Krzyzewski, the first coach to win 1,000 games at one school. Krzyzewski is 11-1 against Izzo, a statistic that says more than a mouthful.
‘‘I’m sick of holding our own,’’ a frustrated Izzo said after his very good team was outscored 15-6 in the last four minutes. ‘‘Do I think we’ll get better? Do I think we’ll get a chance to play [Duke] again? I hope so.’’
He should be careful what he wishes for. Most of the Spartans’ main guys had been around the block before. This was the first game of any consequence for the Blue Devils’ foursome of freshman starters — and the most highly touted of those newcomers, 6-11 Marvin Bagley III, missed the last 30 minutes after taking a scratch to his eye.
And what will make those freshmen ever so dangerous is playing off senior guard Grayson Allen, who has developed into a complete player and is perhaps the most dangerous three-point weapon in the country. Allen was 7-for-11 from long range and scored a career-high 37 points.
Once upon a time, Allen was the freshman who came out of nowhere to score eight points in a row late in the second half of Duke’s comeback victory against Wisconsin in the 2015 national-title game. The next two years were marked by scoring binges, controversial tripping incidents and sideline tantrums. Yet now here he is, a fully realized senior superstar.
But show me an accomplished, veteran-laden team — such as Northwestern, come to think about it — and I’ll show you a team that can knock off a bunch of blue-chip freshmen in March. We saw it eight months ago, when South Carolina shocked Duke on the opening weekend of the Big Dance.
Will it happen to the Blue Devils again? I’m not betting on it, not after they treated the United Center crowd to a heck of a show with NBA players all over the floor.
The Bulls should try it sometime.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.