If Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook continue to co-exist, Duke will be tough to contain

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source: AP
AP

INDIANAPOLIS — Entering the 2014-15 season, it was known throughout college basketball that Duke would rely heavily on its talented incoming freshmen.

But the unanswered question remained how Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski would handle his dueling point guards in senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones? The 6-foot-2 Cook had a bevy of experience and started 22 games last season, but his inconsistent play at the end of the campaign made it seem as though a position battle was brewing. And although the 6-foot-1 Jones entered Durham as a highly-touted, slick-passing floor leader with a solid jump shot, questions about his ability to defend at the college level didn’t make him a definitive starter like a few of his fellow freshmen.

So far this season, though, Cook and Jones have both started, and thrived, in the same backcourt during Duke’s 3-0 start. Monday night’s combined effort against Michigan State in the Champions Classic was particularly noteworthy. The duo put up 36 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers in the Blue Devils’ 81-71 win over the Spartans. They were also efficient as shooters, combining to go 11-for-17 from the field and 5-for-7 from three-point range

After the game, Coach K had plenty of praise for the two McDonald’s All-American point guards that helped Duke maintain a comfortable lead despite foul trouble to freshman center Jahlil Okafor and an illness to reserve guard Rasheed Sulaimon.

“Quinn’s presence was really, really big for us,” Krzyzewski said. “He and Tyus have really developed a great relationship and I thought Tyus took off in the second half. You get 36 points from the two of them; ten assists, no turnovers, good defense.”

It wasn’t always supposed to be this easy of a decision. In the preseason, it looked like Jones was winning the “battle” over Cook after the freshman started both preseason games and Cook came off the bench. But the two point guard look has given Duke a major lift in its starting line-up.

Having two steady ball handlers is a nice perk for Duke’s offense, but Cook also looks very comfortable as a spot-up shooter off of feeds from Jones and the freshman is also enough of a threat as a perimeter shooter to space the floor if Cook takes the ball up himself.

The duo is also showing a tremendous amount of poise and leadership under pressure. When Okafor went down with his fourth foul of the game with 8:54 left in the second half against Michigan State, it was Jones who stepped up and hit the big four-point play a minute later to push the Duke lead back to double digits.

Jones spent much of the first 30 minutes of the game deferring on offense and setting up his teammates, but he and Cook became leaders for a unit that would not wilt without its star big man.

“I was proud of Tyus, personally, not scoring the ball and trying to get everyone involved in the first half. He took his shots with confidence and he played big for us,” Cook said. “When Jah went out with the fourth foul, we didn’t panic, we came together. We wanted to get some rebounds because we were smaller out there and everybody stepped up.”

That kind of leadership was lacking at times for Duke last season. If Jabari Parker or Rodney Hood struggled to make plays, it was difficult to identify a consistent third option that would step up in key moments. But with Okafor off the floor against Michigan State, Cook and Jones helped Duke keep its head above water.

The praise from Jones about his “big brother both on and off the court” was high on Monday night as the two point guards sat together smiling in the press conference after the Champions Classic win.

“He’ll pull me aside on the court and tell me to look for something different or to try to approach things a different way. But at the same time, he’s given me confidence by telling me to believe in myself because he knows what I can do on the court,” Jones said of Cook. “He welcomed me with open arms and it’s been really easy to adjust.”

Cook’s selfless attitude and “off-the-charts leadership,” as Krzyzewski put it, is making a huge difference for Duke this season because it’s allowing Jones to stay comfortable playing his own game while also letting Cook be effective with his strengths. The two are meshing well together and Duke’s offense is limiting turnovers and shooting high percentages.

The immediate need for Okafor was fairly obvious. The Blue Devils had a tough time rebounding, getting stops at the rim and achieving positive post touches on offense in 2013-14, so the No. 1 incoming freshman in the country entering the starting line-up was a foregone conclusion. Losing Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to the 2014 NBA Draft meant Krzyzewski had a need for a scoring wing who could play both sides of the floor so the starting line-up also had a hole that freshman Justise Winslow fit nicely.

But who could have predicted the tremendous lift that this new backcourt would be giving Duke? Krzyzewski could have opted to go with Option 1A or 1B as the starting point guard but the unexpected Option C is working out fine. Okafor and Winslow are looking like the new go-to guys to replace Parker and Hood this season but the combination of Jones and Cook is giving the Blue Devils a much more reliable third option than last season while also limiting turnovers and spacing the floor around Okafor.

Questions will continue to arise if Cook and Jones can defend a high-scoring backcourt featuring a bigger guard, but for now, the Blue Devils are happy to have steady leadership, an efficient offense and a more hopeful outlook on the future after last season’s embarrassing early exit.

Missouri’s Martin ready for game against former Vols team

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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin has a job to do.

It doesn’t matter that his next game is against No. 21 Tennessee (12-4, 3-2 Southeastern Conference), a team he coached for three seasons. It doesn’t matter that it involves a fan base that didn’t exactly love Martin when he coached there.

Martin has to coach his players, and that’s that.

“Fans have the right to be fans if they want to be fans,” Martin said Tuesday, the day before the game. “It’s your choice to be a fan. I’m not going to tell you how to be a fan. It’s my job to do my job.”

Martin, now in his first year at Missouri, coached at Tennessee from 2011-2014. He went 63-41, with two NIT appearances and one NCAA regional semifinal berth.

But the last season, 2013-2014, was the most significant. With Tennessee on the NCAA Tournament bubble, a petition began circulating. Tennessee fans wanted to bring back Bruce Pearl, who was fired in 2011 because of an NCAA investigation. Martin was never as popular as Pearl in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“I’d like to think people appreciated the job he did because I think he did really a terrific job,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I’m not sure how he was embraced. If he wasn’t truly embraced, people should be ashamed because I’m going to tell you, the guy’s a heck of a person, he’s a heck of a basketball coach.”

During that last season, Martin said he couldn’t get caught up in what was going on outside of his team. Tennessee was one of the last four teams to make the tournament. The Vols ended up in the Sweet 16, beating Iowa, Massachusetts and Mercer to get there before losing by 2 points to Michigan. Martin left for Cal after the season.

“More than anything, I had to keep their level of composure, because again, when you fight you battle together,” Martin said of that final season with the Vols. “I think there was mixed emotions for the guys from the standpoint of it was our coach, and they’re airing these things and how do we perceive them. It was strange. And like I told those guys, this is life and you have to push forward . Just a teaching point.”

On Wednesday, Missouri (12-5, 2-2) hosts the Vols in Mizzou Arena. For Martin, it doesn’t mean anything more than another conference game. Missouri has to be ready for Barnes’ talented team, and vice versa. Barnes said he has a lot of respect for Martin and what he has done in the short time he’s been in Columbia.

Missouri was just 8-24 last year, leading to Kim Anderson’s ouster, but has designs on making the NCAA Tournament this season.

“I think his teams embody who he is,” Barnes said. “Go back and think of him as a player and the way he played, what he wants from his players. There’s no doubt in my mind the job he’s doing at Missouri, he’ll continue to do a great job there.”

Martin doesn’t have to face the crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena just yet. Even so, Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson, who played for Martin at Tennessee, said facing the Vols will be a big deal.

“Tennessee means a lot to him,” Richardson said. “I know that, especially the relationships that we all made while we were there together. That’s definitely very important. But I think it’ll be a bigger game when he goes to Knoxville. I think the crowd will accept him, I hope he gets a nice ovation. I think he should, at least.”

A game in Knoxville will come, though not this season. When it does, Martin will just have a job to do.

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AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds and Steve Megargee contributed to this report.

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

How Duke’s porous defense stacks up historically with past title winners

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For the last three years, Duke’s issues on the defensive side of the ball have been constant and pervasive.

Whether it’s their issues defending on the perimeter, or the problems they have dealing with ball-screens, or the freedom of movement rule changes inhibiting their ability to get out and pressure in the half court, the truth is that Mike Krzyzewski’s program has become synonymous with highlight reel offense and matador defense.

Since 2011, only two Duke teams have finished in the top 45 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and only one of those teams finished in the top 25. That was in 2015, when the Blue Devils went from being a mess on that end of the floor in January to the 37th-best defensive at the start of the NCAA tournament to national champions after playing defense at a level that would set records if it lasted for the entirety of a season.

The question this year is whether or not Duke will be capable of pulling off a similar turnaround in March, which made me wonder: How unique was Duke’s 2015 national title? Have we seen a team that struggled as much as they did defensively win a national title before? How many times have teams been able to fix their flaws by getting hot for six games in March?

I went back and looked at the offensive and defensive efficiency rankings for every Final Four team in the KenPom era, both after the tournament came to an end and prior to the start of the dance. The numbers that come before the start of the tournament are the most interesting to me, because teams making a run through the dance are going to see a significant chance in their rankings as they best good teams.

The numbers used in here are where each team ranks nationally. KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margins – what he uses to rank teams – cannot be compared across seasons. KenPom’s database dates back to the 2001-2002 season.

Here’s what I found:

1. NO CHAMPION HAS PLAYED WORSE DEFENSE THAN 2009 NORTH CAROLINA

North Carolina’s 2009 title team had the lowest defensive efficiency ranking of the KenPom era. They entered the NCAA tournament ranked 39th nationally, two spots worse than where the 2015 Duke team.

The 2014 UConn team that won the national title on the back of Shabazz Napier was the worst offensive team of the KenPom era to win a title, entering the tournament ranked 58th.  In fact, that 2014 UConn team was ranked lower than 2010 Butler, which is the only other team ranked outside the top 45 in offensive efficiency to get to the national title game.

Defense may win championships, but in college hoops, the average ranking for teams getting to the national title game – and for teams winning the national title – was higher in offensive efficiency than in defensive efficiency.

2. DUKE WOULD BE THE WORST DEFENSIVE TEAM TO GET TO THE TITLE GAME

Duke currently ranks 72nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. The only team to rank that low defensively was Butler in 2011, but that was also a weird year in the NCAA tournament. No. 3 seed UConn, No. 4 seed Kentucky, No. 8 seed Butler and No. 11 seed VCU all reached the Final Four; VCU made it after starting the tournament off in the First Four.

Butler got out of the first weekend that year thanks to what might be the weirdest finish to a game in NCAA tournament history. They handled good Wisconsin and Florida teams to get to the Final Four, where the Bulldogs faced off with VCU – by far the worst team to get to the Final Four in the KenPom era – before losing to UConn in the title game.

The only other team to rank outside of the top 40 defensively was Trey Burke’s 2013 Michigan team. They were 66th entering the tournament:

For comparison’s sake, UConn’s 2014 title is the only time a team outside of the top 50 offensively reached the title game. Only four other teams, all runner-ups, got to a title game ranked outside the top 25 in offensive efficiency, and the only other title team to rank outside the top 20 in offensive efficiency was UConn in 2011:

3. TO WIN A TITLE, YOU MUST BE ELITE AT SOMETHING OR HAVE A SUPERSTAR

Of the 16 national champions in the KenPom era, 75 percent of them ranked in the top 10 of either offensive or defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament.

The four that didn’t:

Syracuse was led by Carmelo Anthony in 2003. Florida has Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer in 2006 and went on to repeat with that same core of players the next year. UConn has Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier in 2011 and 2014, respectively.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Jalen Brunson is making up ground

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1. TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: Trae Young is the runaway favorite for National Player of the Year. At this point, if he doesn’t win the award, something crazy will have to happen.

So I’ll be using this space simply to take a look at my favorite part of the way that the players on this list play. Here is a look at the way that Young was able to create space to his threes off against TCU. Like Steph Curry, Young is short, doesn’t get all that much elevation when he shoots and a relatively low release-point. But quick feet, a super-quick release, ridiculous range and an innate ability to stay on-balance lets him do things like this:

(Some of these shots are insanely difficult.)

2. JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova: Brunson has added a new wrinkle to his game this season, as he is now being allowed to post up with more impunity. This creates a nightmare scenario for opponents. He is simply too good and too big for just about any point guard to stop on the block, but you cannot send an extra defender because double-teaming one of the best point guards in the country is just not doable, not when he is surrounded by four knock-down shooters.

Here’s a breakdown of why this makes Villanova that much more dangerous.

3. MARVIN BAGLEY III, Duke: The debate over whether or not Bagley is better than Ayton is going to rage all season long. Personally, I think that Ayton is a better prospect that Bagley largely because I think he has an easier fit defensively at the next level. Right now, however, Ayton is probably a marginally better defender while Bagley is a better offensive weapon.

But Bagley is clearly the leader in terms of the Player of the Year race for the simple fact that he has won games on his own by simply being absolutely dominant in the paint.

4. DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona: See above.

5. KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech: For my money, four of the spots for first-team all-american are more or less locked in: Young, Brunson, Bagley and Ayton. There is a lot of season left to play, but right now those four have a solid lead on the field.

My favorite subplot of the race for the Big 12 title is that each of the four teams at the top of the conference are led by point guards that have a real shot at being first-team all-americans. Young, obviously, is going to be there. But the fifth-spot is race between Evans, Devonte’ Graham and Jevon Carter. A week ago I thought Carter was the pick. After seeing what Evans did down the stretch in a win over the Mountaineers over the weekend, I’m now leaning his way. But Graham, who has been terrific all season long, was good down the stretch in a win at West Virginia.

6. DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas
7. JEVON CARTER, West Virginia
8. TRA HOLDER, Arizona State
9. KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State
10. TREVON BLUIETT, Xavier

ALSO CONSIDERED: MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova; JOCK LANDALE, Saint Mary’s; DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue; YANTE MATEN, Georgia; LUKE MAYE, North Carolina; SHAKE MILTON, SMU; JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota;  DESI RODRIGUEZ, Seton Hall; LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State; KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton; ALLONZO TRIER, Arizona

VIDEO: Providence coach Ed Cooley always needs a mic

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On Friday night at DePaul, Providence head coach Ed Cooley allowed himself to be mic’d up for a TV broadcast, and things got interesting.

Around the 36 second mark, Cooley starts talking about … vampires and bats and dracula?

Then robbing banks and saying thank you?

I don’t know. Just watch.

VIDEO: Kansas celebrates in locker room after West Virginia win

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After coming from 16 points down to knock off No. 6 West Virginia in Morgantown on Monday night, Kansas had themselves some fun in the visitor’s locker room.

I’m not exactly sure what is happening here, but I do know Devonte’ Graham is having a hell of a time.

COLUMN: Kansas is back on top in the Big 12

My only question … where is Billy Preston’s shirt? He didn’t even play: