The one-on-one scoring duel between Grayson Allen and Cat Barber interrupted two weeks ago by Barber’s knee injury resumes Saturday, and the stakes may be even higher this time around.
Allen had 16 points and Barber 14 in the first half of Duke’s 88-78 win at N.C. State on Jan. 23, before Barber was slowed early in the second half. Neither has slowed down since, and what happens Saturday could play a huge role in the ACC player-of-the-year race.
Allen and Barber are two of the top four candidates for that award at this point in the season, along with presumed front-runner Brice Johnson of North Carolina and Virginia’s Malcolm Brodgon. Another shootout could polish either candidacy – or both.
That’s how the first meeting – “first” being a rarity, since N.C. State and Duke are meeting twice in the regular season for only the fifth time since 2004 – looked until Barber bumped knees with Brandon Ingram. With Barber hobbled, N.C. State had no answer as Duke took over and shot 71 percent from the floor in the second half, turning a seven-point halftime deficit into a 10-point win behind Allen’s 28 points. Barber still managed to finish with 19, but that ranks as his sixth-lowest scoring game of the season.
The first half of that game was an entertaining exchange of rapid-fire shooting between Allen and Barber befitting two of the ACC’s best players, one unfortunately derailed in the second half. Now they get another chance.
Since that game, Barber has been averaging a staggering 32.3 points per game, explosive even by his standards. He leads the ACC in scoring and is seventh in the nation at 23.4 per game and is on target to become only the second ACC player to average 23.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists, a mark Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson set in 1990.
The main negative against Barber as player of the year is that N.C. State sits near the bottom of the ACC standings, likely to begin the ACC tournament on Tuesday even with Friday’s news that Louisville will self-impose a postseason ban, leading to the second straight 14-team tournament – Syracuse sat out last season – and two Tuesday games instead of three.
Unquestionably, a 2-8 ACC record isn’t good. And unlike Virginia Tech’s Erick Green in 2013, another individual standout on a struggling team, Barber faces legitimate competition for the award. But no player in the ACC – perhaps the country – is more important to his team than Barber, who is doing things that haven’t been done at N.C. State since David Thompson.
Meanwhile, Allen continues to do exactly what was expected of him after his late-season and Final Four cameo with Duke’s national champions while having a chance to make some school history of his own. He leads Duke in both scoring (20.2) and assists (3.7), something only eight players have done for the Blue Devils, a list that includes Grant Hill, Danny Ferry and Johnny Dawkins.
Allen is behind only Barber among ACC scoring leaders, but he benefits from playing for a better team, even if a 5-4 ACC record and lack of an AP top-25 ranking are far below Duke’s typical standards. And thanks to his performance on a national stage last spring, he may have a higher profile than Barber as well – which isn’t fair, but past voting indicates not all ACC award voters pay close attention on a game-to-game basis, unfortunate as that may be.
In this discussion, the fact that Johnson and Brogdon play for the league’s two leading title contenders is unavoidable, and it may end up being the deciding factor when it comes to the player of the year. But as long as Barber and Allen keep scoring, that conversation is a long way from over, and they’ll continue to invite that individual comparison Saturday.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock