We all know what happened the last time Grayson Allen and Steven Santa Ana were on the same court.
Less than 11 months ago, Elon’s Santa Ana spun toward the baseline at the Greensboro Coliseum, only for Allen to extend his right leg—the same fateful extremity that had brought down Louisville’s Ray Spalding a year prior. The then-Blue Devil junior was captured on camera as he pouted on the Duke bench next to assistant coach Jon Scheyer, cementing himself as the latest in a line of so-called villains to play in Durham.
Although the memories of that night in Greensboro may return temporarily Friday, they will likely fade quickly, overwhelmed by the excitement inside Cameron Indoor Stadium as the Blue Devils host the Phoenix at 7 p.m. to kick off the 2017-18 campaign. No. 1 Duke will then return to its home court just 24 hours later when the Blue Devils take on Utah Valley at 7 p.m. Saturday, with head coach Mike Krzyzewski poised to earn his 1,000th win at Duke.
Elon put up a fight when the two sides met last December, falling just 72-61, but the Blue Devils will be heavy favorites in both contests this weekend. Still, with an inexperienced roster and a critical matchup early next week against No. 2 Michigan State, Krzyzewski hopes that his team can use opening weekend as a way to set itself up for success in the coming three weeks.
“When you have big leads, you can get sloppy or start getting out of character,” Krzyzewski said. “You don’t want to get out of character when you don’t know your character yet. You’re trying to develop a character, so that’s what we talked about. Stay in what you do, no matter the score or what lineup we have, so you can develop those habits.
“We have a rough road with nine games in 20 days. We’re traveling a lot. You’re in Chicago, you’re in Portland, you’re in Indiana, and then you’re up at Boston College. That’s a lot, and we’ll see how these young guys do.”
Fortunately, Duke will have the benefit of Trevon Duval back running the point for its offense. The freshman guard—along with fellow rookies Alex O’Connell and Jordan Goldwire—missed the Blue Devils’ last exhibition contest due to a suspension for academic reasons.
With Duval as point guard, Allen will slide back into his role as an off-guard and Javin DeLaurier will likely retreat to the bench as Duke’s sixth man. Expect Krzyzewski to stick with a seven-man rotation early on—the 70-year-old head coach mentioned in a video update posted to Twitter Thursday that sophomore Marques Bolden has been sick, but will “hopefully be back by Friday.”
Even if Goldwire takes some time spelling Duval, Allen has shown that he too is quite capable of manning the Blue Devil attack. The Jacksonville, Fla., native has averaged 3.5 assists per game each of the last two seasons and dominated Bowie State last Saturday to the tune of 21 points and 11 dimes.
Regardless of the role or position that Duke needs Allen to fill, he will do so—and at the All-American level he is capable of performing.
“My first three years here, we’ve had lineups that are more spaced and smaller with four guys that are really guards out there,” Allen said. “This year, now we’re playing with only two guards, two ball-handlers. It’s different, but I like how we’ve adjusted to playing to it, and it’s not as much drive and kick stuff, it’s a lot more motion and screening.... I think we’ve all adjusted well to playing that way, and it’s a fun way to play.”
Certainly, the Blue Devils’ size will come into play against their opponents this weekend. The Phoenix have just two players taller than 6-foot-8, and together, they combined for less than 11 minutes per game last season.
Still, Elon returns its top five scorers from last season, led by forward Tyler Seibring’s 14.4 points per game. Add in 44.6 percent 3-point shooter Brian Dawkins along with a dangerous backcourt that features Santa Ana and a pair of Phoenix that shot better than 40 percent from the field last year, and Matt Matheny’s Elon squad has the experience to challenge the Blue Devils yet again.
Utah Valley poses a different type of veteran threat—the Wolverines boast a roster chock full of transfers, including former Oklahoma big man Akolda Manyang and 22-year-old junior Connor Toolson, who led Utah Valley’s offense with nearly 12 points per game in 2016-17.
Good news could come for Duke even before Friday’s tip-off—2018 No. 1 recruit R.J. Barrett will make his college decision just one hour before the Blue Devils take the floor against the Phoenix.
Nonetheless, the focus will be on this Duke team and Coach K Court with college basketball finally back in full force.
“We expected to be playing as one group. That’s something coach always preaches to us, taking our individual talents and putting it into one team,” freshman Marvin Bagley III said. “I think we still have a long way to go, but we’re definitely going in the right direction.”
Hank Tucker, Neel Morthy and Sameer Pandhare contributed reporting.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."