Here's what intrigues me most about the Grayson Allen tripping fallout and suspension: Does Duke need him at this point?
In the big picture, is Allen's inclusion to this team something vital to their chase to a championship?
I'll answer that below, but let's first realize how far Duke's come in such a short span. It speaks to how great Mike Krzyzewski's team has been this year that we're even able to ask the aforementioned question with a straight face. The 2016-17 season has been a tremendous one for college basketball already, so wild that you might've forgotten that Allen was considered the preseason favorite to win National Player of the Year. He was also the no-doubt-about-it pick for us in our annual preseason ranking of the best players in the sport.
The hatred for Allen and the swamped coverage of Duke and Kentucky and UCLA and Villanova can overshadow the fact that Allen was college basketball's one and only true, national household name entering this season. I think some of that has been lost amid the noise.
Even with arguably Krzyzewski's best freshman class ever, the thought was that Allen would need to be the leader, the driving force for Duke in order to ensure this team could separate itself from a competitive crew at the top.
Now Allen's facing an indefinite suspension, will sit for Duke's ACC debut at Virginia Tech on Dec. 31, and then who knows for how long after that. Duke's first games of 2017 include vs. Georgia Tech (Jan. 4), vs. Boston College (Jan. 7) and at Florida State (Jan. 10). In the short-term, Duke should be fine without Allen. The Virginia Tech game is going to be tricky; the Hokies are 10-1 and starting to hit their stride in Buzz Williams' third year in Blacksburg.
But if Allen were to be forced to sit again, if he had significant injury or -- heaven help us all -- another tripping incident, could Duke cope?
Would the Blue Devils still be set up to be the best team in the sport?
Let's look at Allen's production this season and compare it to last year, when he was Third Team AP All-American and a First Team selection in the ACC.
Last year, Allen helped Duke to a No. 4 seed while averaging 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists. His offensive rating at KenPom was a terrific 124.9. He made 42 percent of his 3-point attempts and was the catalyst for Duke. He did this while developing a reputation for tripping people, too. There were calls for a suspension last season; instead, Krzyzewski did nothing and the ACC merely publicly reprimanded him.
But Duke would've been a much different, much worse team without Allen last season.
This year's group is so different. Amile Jefferson is the vital fifth-year senior. Sophomore shooting guard Luke Kennard has blown up, putting his name in the top five for Player of the Year, while Allen's been inconsistent but not invisible. Duke's had to be patient in allowing most of its five-star freshmen come into the fold, but it hasn't suffered. The team's only loss came at Madison Square Garden in the final seconds after Kansas' Frank Mason III hit the winning shot.
Duke is very close to being undefeated and yet it hasn't had one game where it's roster has been fully at use. Right now, Duke has a top-three offense and top-eight defense at KenPom.
Amid all of this, sure, Allen hasn't played up to his potential. But he's still not a ghost out there. His averages this season: 16.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists. The issue is his shooting. He's just 45 percent from 2-point range, 33.7 percent from 3. His offensive rating is at 116.4, which is still quite good. A fair assessment: He's been the third-most important player for Duke this season (behind Kennard and Jefferson) from start to finish, but Jayson Tatum is already showing signs of usurping him.
And we have to see what Harry Giles will do in January.
The Allen suspension has whipped everyone into a frenzy, but in terms of on-court production, the best news for Duke is that he's been able to become more X-factor than MVP. His passing has been great. He's still a high-level athlete and very good player. Does Duke absolutely need him if it's going to win a national title? Not if everyone else is healthy and Kennard continues to play like he has.
I think the expectation level was so high that people might think Allen's only averaging like 10 points and three rebounds per game. He's been better than that. Could Duke be the best team in America without him? I think the roster is that loaded, yes. With full health, Duke is capable of proving itself as the best team in America while Allen is suspended, all of which makes it an interesting debate over whether the massive distraction and PR disaster Allen has caused is worth it for Duke, given his varying production.
I suspect Duke could still win a national title without him. But they can't become all-time great unless Allen's off suspension, healthy and on the floor, contributing in all the great ways he's shown us through most of 2016.