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Settling the Joel Berry vs. Grayson Allen debate

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Good friends. Better rivals. All-Americans. National Champions. But who was the better college player?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

An interesting caveat to Duke-Carolina: Despite its long and storied history, and its undeniable status as college basketball’s greatest rivalry, very rarely does it feature an individual rivalry. You know: A one-on-one duel between two players of the same position, where one frequently guards the other and tries to the same thing the other does, but better and everyone knows the entire game depends on it. The Heels and the Blue Devils don’t play that way: The goal is to win for the team, not make an individual statement.

Sure, there have been occasions: J.R. Reid and Danny Ferry certainly didn’t care for each other. Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts was supposed to be a great rivalry, but...it wasn’t, cause, McRoberts. Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson had the backstory for it, but never became the marquee attraction.

The last four years developed into something different. Two high school stars from the Sunshine State, teammates in their AAU days chose contrasting shades of blue as part of the class of 2014. And, despite walking two very different paths, the two of them came to define their programs for their tenure in Chapel Hill and Durham. The two never shared any animosity for each other (much to the frustration of all of us), but their level of play and their vital roles in the greatest rivalry of them all make them undeniable rivals.

Who was better? Berry or Allen? Let’s look at the years:

Freshman Year

The calm before the storm. Both Berry and Allen came off the bench in their freshman campaigns, playing behind their more experienced teammates Marcus Paige and Quinn Cook. Berry wasn’t even the 2nd string point guard, averaging fewer minutes than sophomore Nate Britt. Allen also was playing behind fellow frosh Tyus Jones, who was basically built to run a college offense.

Berry averaged 4.2 ppg (40% fg, 35% 3-pt) and 1.5 apg in just 13 minutes of play per game. Allen did much the same, tallying 4.4 ppg on 42% fg, 35% 3-pt on 9 minutes a game. But then the National Championship Game against Wisconsin happened and America met Grayson Allen. His 16 points in the title game may not have popped off the box score, but every single basket was vital. And just like that, Duke had ring number five.

Edge: Allen

Sophomore Year

The breakout season. Both players saw increased minutes and starting spots, and both made the most of them. Berry improved dramatically, bumping his averages up to 12.8 ppg and 3.8 ppg. But Allen exploded, leaping to 21.6 ppg and 3.5 apg. He would be named a 2nd-team All-American and would tally many memorable performances, a dramatic victory in Chapel Hill that I’m still not entirely over. We also were introduced to “Grayson Why You Trippin’” for the first time.

The postseason favored Berry. His terrific performance in the ACC Championship earned him MOP honors and he tallied a brilliant first half in the title game against Villanova. Had the Heels managed to push the game to overtime and won, Berry might very well have been the MOP of the NCAA tournament as well, making this a toss-up. Unfortunately, Kris Jenkins had other plans.

Edge: Allen

Junior Year

The tide turns. It was supposed to be Duke and Allen’s year. Duke was preseason #1 and Allen was one of the favorites for National Player of the Year. Instead, a rash of injuries (both self-inflicted and otherwise) continuously derailed Duke’s season. Allen, who most expected to be the leader of the team, was a distraction, and struggled in his role as primary ball handler, instead of his favored off-ball position. His number dropped to 14.5 ppg and his shooting percentage fell below 40%.

There were no questions about character and leadership from Berry, who became the engine that drove the Tar Heels to redemption. He averaged 14.7 ppg and 3.8 apg, coming up huge for the Tar Heels time and again, notably on Senior Night against Duke. Then, he led the Heels back to the title game, finished the job, and won MOP. The preseason favorite Blue Devils fell in the 2nd round to the other Carolina.

Edge: Berry

Senior Year

For the second year in a row, the Blue Devils were heavy favorites to win it all and Allen was expected to provide the veteran leadership needed to lead Coach K’s array of new blue chips. Berry was expected to lead UNC virtually by himself. Neither prediction proved to be the case: Allen took a back seat to his freshman teammates and Berry got much more help from his “supporting cast” than many anticipated.

Allen turned in 15.5 ppg and 4.6 apg, and his shooting improved slightly from the season before. However, he struggled much of the ACC schedule and it wasn’t until Marvin Bagley’s injury that he truly regained his form, finishing strong in the last six or seven conference games.

Berry averaged 17.1 ppg and 3.2 apg, while seeing his shooting percentages fall a bit from the previous season. His teammates, particularly Luke Maye, raised their games beautifully, taking much of the pressure off him to carry the squad every night. Nonetheless, he was still the go-to-guy in crunch time.

Both teams finished with disappointing results in the NCAA Tournament: UNC laid an egg against A&M and Duke lost a thriller to Kansas, failing to make the Final Four they expected. Ultimately, this edge comes down to the head-to-head matchup and the Heels took 2 of 3.

Edge: Berry

Total: 2-2

Had a feeling this would be close. With that, let’s settle this by tiebreaker speed round:

National Championships: Tie

Final Fours: Berry 2, Allen 1

ACC Tournament Titles: Berry 1, Allen 1

ACC Regular Season Titles: Berry 2, Allen 0

All-Americas: Allen 2nd-Team (2016), Berry 3rd-team (2018)

Most Outstanding Players: Berry 2, Allen 0

Four-Year Stats: Allen 14.0 ppg 3.0 apg, Berry 12.2 ppg, 2.7 apg

Head-to-Head Results: Allen 6, Berry 4

Clutch Gene: Tie

Intangibles: Berry led his team to a title on two sprained ankles, Grayson tripped people from time to time

Total: Berry 4, Allen 3, 2 ties

The Verdict: JOEL BERRY