No Marvin Bagley III forcing Duke to find some needed answers

CLEMSON, S.C. — If you were looking for answers about Marvin Bagley III’s health, Duke did little to offer insight Sunday. Duke’s star freshman missed his third straight game, watching in sweats, as the 12th-ranked Blue Devils toppled No. 11 Clemson 66-57, with his coach offering little more than the same vague optimism afterward.

“He’s progressing,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “Hopefully it’ll be soon.”

For those on the court, however, there were answers — resounding ones, as Duke marched to a third straight win without Bagley, this time behind a smothering defensive effort that held the Tigers to just 8-of-33 from the field in the second half.

All the tricks that Krzyzewski has pulled to make up for Bagley’s absence have worked beautifully.

Wendell Carter Jr. helped power Duke past Clemson, scoring 13 of his 15 points in the second half and grabbing 10 rebounds. AP Photo/Richard Shiro

Grayson Allen continued to bring the ball upcourt, and he stayed hot in that role, racking up a game-high 19 points, including 17 in the first half.

The easing back on his offensive responsibilities opened up opportunities for freshman Trevon Duval on the defensive end, where he was exceptional.

And the zone defense, which over the past few games has become the almost exclusive scheme for the Blue Devils, utterly thwarted Clemson’s attack, with star Gabe DeVoe finishing just 1-of-10 from the field.

None of it was especially pretty, but it was effective.

“We’ve become a pretty good defensive team,” Krzyzewski said of his team, which without its star big man has held its past three opponents to 43 percent from the field.

It’s notable that Krzyzewski’s praise was limited to “pretty good.” This is still a work in progress. But the takeaway Sunday was that through all the mixing and matching and shifting, Duke continues to make all those pieces fit.

The Blue Devils extended their zone more than at virtually any point this season in hopes of thwarting Clemson’s perimeter game. It worked. Duke recorded 10 steals, and the Tigers were just 5-of-20 from behind the arc.

Wendell Carter Jr. was tasked, yet again, with manning the post without his partner in the paint, and the early results were ugly. He missed his first six shots. He ended the first half with just two points.

“It was a man’s game down there,” Krzyzewski said. “It was really physical.”

But Carter responded with a monster second half, carrying the offensive load with 13 points and turning in his third straight double-double.

Javin DeLaurier finished with just two points, playing 30 minutes in Bagley’s stead, but his 10 boards tied for the team lead.

This is hardly the way Duke wants to play, but the opportunity to flex a few muscles that may have atrophied behind Bagley’s presence on the court has been valuable.

“We’re really tired,” Krzyzewski said. “But these young guys, they grew up a little more today.”

He was quick to note that Clemson, too, was playing shorthanded, with point guard Shelton Mitchell and forward Donte Grantham both out. But Bagley is, as Krzyzewski said, arguably the most talented player in the country, and what the Blue Devils have shown through three games without him is that the they have plenty of talent among the supporting cast, too.

Does the zone look as effective in March?

Is Allen best suited to bring the offense up the court?

Will the tough lessons of Sunday’s first half have Carter better prepped for the battles to come?

The hope is that Bagley’s return minimizes the impact of any of these questions — perhaps in Duke’s upcoming games on Wednesday or Saturday, or in another week or two. But the point is that Duke has indeed had answers, so the questions still looming around the star freshman haven’t felt as big as they might’ve.

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