Duke forward Marvin Bagley III (35) shoots baskets from the floor about two hours before gamete. Duke announced Bagley will mis his fourth straight game due to a knee sprain. Duke battled Louisville at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018 Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com
Duke forward Marvin Bagley III (35) shoots baskets from the floor about two hours before gamete. Duke announced Bagley will mis his fourth straight game due to a knee sprain. Duke battled Louisville at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018 Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Luke DeCock

Duke better or worse without Bagley? Blue Devils are definitely different

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

February 21, 2018 11:48 PM

DURHAM

Even the Louisville fans were stunned into submission, which is something. It's been a tough week for them, to be sure. Seeing their team so overwhelmed by Duke on top of everything else left them unusually meek, watching helplessly from the start.

Now 4-0 with Marvin Bagley III nursing what has been described as a “mild” knee sprain for almost two weeks after Wednesday's 82-56 win, Duke hasn't lost since the North Carolina game.

While there is no shortage of conspiracy theories about Bagley's extended absence – now four times as long as Grayson Allen's indefinite suspension – and an equal number of barroom arguments over whether Duke is better with or without him, the reality is that Duke has been different without Bagley: more efficient defensively and more balanced offensively, although some of that may have nothing to do with whether the freshman is in the lineup.

It was all on display Wednesday, maybe the most complete Bagley-free Duke performance yet, with Javin Delaurier throwing down putback dunks and Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval taking their cues from Allen. Louisville hung around for about 10 minutes. That was about it. By halftime, the lead was 17. Midway through the second half, it was up to 29.

Allen led Duke with 28, the third time he has cracked the 20-point mark with Bagley missing. He did that five times in the previous 24 games, and one of those was the Michigan State game Bagley left in the first half. Some of that is inevitable: When you lose a player averaging more than 20 points a game, as Bagley was, someone's going to pick up the slack. Some of it is organic, with the ball more often in Allen's hands instead of Duval's, like Duke's newfound commitment to zone defense a post-Carolina tweak.

But it's also possible Bagley is so supremely talented, he unavoidably makes the team top-heavy. Even as strong a personality as Allen deferred to Bagley, which explains Allen's continued offensive explosion in his absence. Wendell Carter Jr. has thrived as the team's lone inside scoring threat, as opposed to fighting for touches under the basket.

Duke guard Grayson Allen (3) goes in to score in the first half as Louisville forward Anas Mahmoud (14) defends. Allen scored 28 points in the win. Duke defeated Louisville 82-56 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018
Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Eventually, Duke will have to figure things out with Bagley. For now, it's a finely tuned machine. Against Louisville, it was all working.

The Cardinals couldn't handle Carter inside and kept helping off Allen outside. (At one point, interim coach David Padgett whirled and stalked down his bench for a sub before an open Allen shot reached its apogee. It went in.) This probably wasn't the best environment for a team still struggling to digest the finality of its NCAA punishment, especially on a night when Duke was inclined to show little mercy.

Still, it remains odd how much better the Blue Devils appear to be without Bagley – especially since a lot of the improvement is on defense as Duke has become almost exclusively a zone team and Bagley's presence or absence shouldn't make that much of a difference either way.

“In a short period of time, they've turned (the zone) into a major defensive weapon,” Padgett said.

Bagley's return appears both imminent and uncertain in equal measure – he looked good enough taking shots in an empty gym two hours before Wednesday's game, but had changed into his game-time golf shirt by the time his teammates came out for warmups and there's no guarantee he'll be ready for Syracuse on Saturday – so the eternal question will be whether Duke has reached this level of defensive efficiency merely because the zone has clicked or whether Bagley's absence has something to do with it. At the other end, it will be equally compelling to see how the roles of Allen and Carter evolve, or devolve, if Bagley is once again the focus of the offense.

“We'll try to figure it out,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Thank goodness our kids are playing so well. To win four games without him is really a big-time thing.”

The reality this season is that as good as Duke has looked without Bagley, the Blue Devils still need him to reach their full potential – which remains unlimited with him, and actually looks surprisingly good without him

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock