INDIANAPOLIS — The difference between the Duke team that was blown out in back-to-back games by N.C. State and Miami and the one that has beaten the likes of Utah, Gonzaga and Michigan State en route to the national title game is simple: They’re finally playing defense.
And if you ask them what has changed, why they went from a team that gave up 1.25 PPP in those two losses to one that has not given up more than 0.90 PPP in the NCAA tournament and has climbed all the way up to No. 12 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings, they’ll tell you, to a man, that it’s … because they started caring?
Matt Jones said they’re “buying into it more.” Grayson Allen called it “an emotional commitment.” Amile Jefferson referred to their improved “toughness and togetherness”, while Justise Winslow simply said they “just really committed to the defensive end.”
Quite frankly, that sounds like something straight from the handbook of the press conference cliche.
But could it also be accurate?
On Tuesday, I wrote about Duke’s defense after watching every possession that they played during the regional in Houston, and there really isn’t all that much that Duke is doing differently from the start of the year. It’s the same old Mike Krzyzewski defensive scheme, only they’re doing it better than they were two months ago. So I believe. There’s a pride that comes with being a great defensive team. It took awhile for the Blue Devils to figure that out, and it all stems from a players-only meeting that Quinn Cook called after the Miami loss, a meeting that assistant coach Jon Scheyer called, “a season changer”.
“I just called everybody to my house, watched TV, just relaxed and got away from basketball for a minute to make sure everybody was OK,” Cook said with a smile on Sunday, playing coy about the role that meeting played in Duke’s resurgence. “We let two get away from us. If you lose two in a row, your confidence can go elsewhere, and then we had a big game at Louisville that Saturday. I just wanted to make sure the guys’ confidence level was OK and tell everybody we’re fine, we just have to get this win at Louisville.”
Playing at Louisville, the Blue Devils used a 2-3 zone to jump out to a huge halftime lead in what amounted to a blowout win. The zone wasn’t much more than a gimmick, a quick fix to a major problem that didn’t have an easy answer, but it gave the Blue Devils their swagger back. It showed them that what Cook was preaching was true: Those two losses were stumbling blocks, but this team still had the pieces to be able to win a national title.
“I thought he did a great job in those meetings,” Jefferson, who is a co-captain with Cook, said. “Just being a voice and really touching everybody and letting everybody know that we have enough. That we are that good. When you lose two straight games, you believe. You start to believe…”
“It was a pivotal moment in our season.”
The Blue Devils play with that pride defensively now. They get offended when someone scores on them, because they know what’s at stake. They know who they are when they’re great defensively and they know what happens when they aren’t emotionally invested in that end of the floor.
It wasn’t a smooth transition. Duke still took some lumps late in the regular season, but you don’t become a great defensive team overnight. This is still a team that starts three freshmen and has four in their rotation. They still had things to learn on that end, and that’s before you consider the fact that the veterans on the roster had played on a team that really struggled defensively last season.
They’ve gotten better as they’ve grown, with everything coming together during this run through the NCAA tournament, but that growth can be tracked back to that players only meeting back in January.
“It’s best when the players do it,” Scheyer said. “There’s certain things where it means more coming from the players, so the fact that Quinn did that, it wouldn’t have meant the same had the coaches done that.”
“It was a season-changer.”
Quinn Cook changes position, attitude to lead Duke to the Final Four
INDIANAPOLIS — The bond between Quinn Cook and Nolan Smith runs deep, a friendship that has blossomed since the pair first met at an AAU tournament in Memphis 15 years ago. An 11-year-old Smith walked up to six-year-old Cook and said, “you’re my little brother,” and since that moment, their friendship has grown to the point that Cook lists Smith as his god-brother on his player profile on the Duke basketball website.
The two don’t share a parent, but what they do share is a bond over the vacancy of a parent in their lives. Smith’s father, Derek, died on a family cruise when Nolan was just eight years old. A decade later, Cook’s father passed away during surgery. The two believe that they were put in each other’s lives for that very reason. Smith helps — present tense — Cook work through the tragedy of a child growing up without a father, a process that helps Smith deal with the void his father’s death left in his life just as much as it does Cook.
You can probably figure out, then, that it’s not a coincidence Cook’s career path, entering this season, had mirrored Smith’s. They played for the same AAU program, the DC Assault. They both transferred out of a Maryland basketball powerhouse to play their senior season in high school at Oak Hill Academy. They both signed with Duke as McDonald’s All-Americans, and they both donned the No. 2 in Duke blue. Smith’s senior season ended with him being named an All-American after carrying Duke through the loss of Kyrie Irving to a toe injury.
He got demoted, as Mike Krzyzewski recruited star point guard Tyus Jones over him. Cook had a decision to make.
“Tyus was a point guard that was going to step right in and play — and most likely start,” Smith told NBCSports.com. “He had to accept that. I told [Cook], ‘you have to be ready to slide to the two’ or, you know, if he wasn’t ready, be a backup.”
There was no guarantee that Cook would buy-in. Playing the point is a mindset. It’s an identity. That’s who Quinn Cook was, and, frankly, who he believes he is today. He is a point guard, and not only is he now being asked to play a different position than he’s had in his entire basketball-playing life, but he has to do it because Coach K went out and recruited a player that was better than him.
That’s one way to get your ego put in check.
And Cook had plenty of ego to spare. He even admitted to reporters on Friday afternoon that he wasn’t always the easiest player for the coaching staff to deal with.
“It’s a lot of stuff,” he said with the laugh of a man wise enough to understand his past mistakes. “Immaturity. … Off the court stuff, like my mentality going into games, preparing the right way. I just had to grow up.”
And grow up he did.
Cook has completely bought into the idea of playing off the ball, and to hear Smith tell it, he didn’t need any coaxing or any convincing. “We talked about that at the end of last season,” he said. “It was easy. He was ready. He just wanted to win this season, whether he was starting at the point or starting on the wing, he was just tired of losing in the first round. He wasn’t going to let that happen this year.”
“We talked about the fact that here is this class that’s coming in,” Coach K added. “Tyus is one of the really good point guards. People think of you as a point guard. They just put you in there. But you have been a guard for us. You’re our best shooter. You’re going to be our oldest player. Where does that fit? How does that fit?”
“I tried to explain what I thought. And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s how I would fit’. I said, ‘I’m going to depend on you.'”
“My MVP of that team is Cook,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said on Friday, and while he’s not entirely accurate, Izzo’s far from alone in that belief.
Jahlil Okafor is Duke’s most valuable player simply because there is no one else that can do what he does the way he does it in the country. He’s an unstoppable force in the paint. That’s not replicable. Justise Winslow is just as valuable as Okafor because of what he allows Duke to do defensively. He can guard point guards and he can guard power forwards, and, when he starts at the four, he creates all kinds of matchup nightmares on the offensive end of the floor.
But what Cook provides goes beyond the box score, although his 15.5 points, 2.7 assists and 40.1 percent three-point shooting is pretty darn important. Throw in Jones, and the three biggest names on this Duke roster are freshmen. The adjustment from high school superstar to college freshman with impossible expectations is not an easy one to handle, and Cook has played a major role in that learning process.
Particularly for the guy that took his job.
“He’s had a good teacher,” Coach K said of Jones, “and it hasn’t been his coach. It’s been primarily Quinn.”
“Myself and Tyus, a lot of people try to make a big deal about us playing the same position, us not playing together,” Cook added. “That’s made us closer.”
And that leadership, that ownership of the program, has made Duke better. Think about the tone that sets for the rest of the roster. Cook was willing to make major personal sacrifices for the betterment of his team. He also stepped up when Duke’s season appeared to be in dire straits. They had just lost back-to-back games to N.C. State and Miami and were getting lit up by talented back court playmakers, so Cook decided that it was time for him to become the team’s elite on-ball defender, playing the biggest role in Duke slowing down the likes of Delon Wright, Kevin Pangos, Jerian Grant and Marcus Paige.
“He’s really stepped up and wanted to take the challenge of being the defender,” Smith said. “I’m not sure who else would have did it, and he took it upon himself to say, ‘alright, I’m going to be that guy.'”
And to show for it, Cook now has his first banner to hang in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Prior to Sunday’s win over Gonzaga in the Elite 8, Cook had never actually won anything while at Duke, no ACC tournaments, no ACC regular season titles, no Final Fours. Nothing.
It bothered him.
He didn’t want that to be his legacy.
Technically, however, he still hasn’t won anything yet.
“I think getting to the Final Four is a sigh of relief,” Smith said, “but [now that he’s here], he’s not done. He’s like, ‘well, now I gotta get the whole thing.'”
Prior to the start of the NCAA tournament, I did not think that Duke belonged in the same conversation as Kentucky, Wisconsin and Arizona when it came to talking about national title contenders.
They were as good as anyone on the right side of the bracket — in that same conversation as Gonzaga, Virginia and Villanova when it came to the favorite to get to the national title game — but the consistent lapses that Duke had on the defensive end of the floor were too much to ignore.
We’ve been over those defensive lapses quite a bit in this space, but to make a long story short, Duke’s perimeter defense was far too porous, they had no intimidating shot-blocking presence at the rim and their ball-screen defense was, to put it nicely, really, really bad. Entering the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils were right around 60th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
Things have completely changed in Duke’s four NCAA tournament games. Duke has yet to allow more than 0.89 points-per-possession in any of their four games, posting defensive numbers that are more or less on par with what Kentucky has done all season. Seeing the Blue Devils dominate Robert Morris and San Diego State on that end of the floor is not all that surprising, but watching Utah and Gonzaga, who entered the Elite 8 as the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense, struggle against these Blue Devils was quite unexpected.
Duke now enters the Final Four ranked 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
What happened? How did Duke go from a defensive liability to a team that is very tough to score on? I watched every possession that Duke played defensively last weekend in Houston, and here’s what I can come up with:
Quinn Cook’s ability on the ball makes Duke very good vs. teams with dominant PGs: One of the most impressive in-season improvements that we’ve seen this year is with Quinn Cook, a guy that has gone from often being a defensive liability to one of the nation’s better on-ball defenders. He’s certainly the best that Duke has in their back court, and he’s proven it over and over again. He took away Jerian Grant and Marcus Paige in wins over Notre Dame and North Carolina this season, and he did much of the same to Kevin Pangos and Delon Wright this weekend. Wright was 4-for-13 from the floor with just two assists and two turnovers, while Pangos was 2-for-8 from the field with no assists and three turnovers.
“I’ve always taken pride in outscoring whoever I was matched up with,” Cook told the News & Observor. “I’ve never taken pride in shutting someone down. I’ve learned to like playing defense.”
Both Wright and Pangos are key facilitators that create a ton of scoring chances for their team and run their respective offenses. Cook’s ability to give them fits was a major reason that Duke’s defense was so effective.
Justise Winslow is a bad man: Winslow is an awesome defensive player, and his particular skill set makes him so valuable to the Blue Devils given the way they like to defend. He’s big, strong and long enough to defend most power forwards at the college level, but he’s also quick and athletic enough to defend just about any perimeter player. What that means is that when Winslow is at the four with three guards on the floor — the starting lineup that Coach K has been using since late February — they can switch 1-through-4 defensively while staying in a man-to-man defense, which is an easy way to take an opponent out of what they want to do offensively.
Duke’s 2-2-1 press caused some problems: Duke showed a 2-2-1 press against both Utah and Gonzaga in certain situations — usually after a made free throw — that caused some problems for their opponents. A 2-2-1 is not like ‘Havoc’ or ’40 Minutes of Hell’, it’s used more to chew up clock and to bait impatient teams into throwing dangerous passes. Both the Utes and the Zags had a couple of turnovers when Duke threw the 2-2-1 at them.
The Dome probably helped, too: Call me a hater if you must, but both Gonzaga and Utah missed a number of jumpers that they usually hit. Both the Utes and the Zags shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc this season, and combined, they were 6-for-26 from three in Houston. This is the same dome where Butler and UConn had that horrid, 53-41 national title game. Maybe there’s something to that?
As did Jakob Poeltl and Przemek Karnowski: Neither Poeltl or Karnowski can shoot from the perimeter, meaning that Okafor could just hang out in the paint and provide help. He’s not a great shot blocker, but when he’s standing in front of the rim instead of chasing big men that can shoot out to 15 feet, he does have an affect.
But mostly, it’s just execution: After watching around 120 possessions of Duke’s defense from last weekend, I can definitively tell you that Coach K is not re-inventing the wheel here. This isn’t a gimmick, it’s not him shocking the world with a 2-3 zone like he did at Louisville. It’s not as simply explained by shooting in the Dome or that the matchup, one with a dominant point guard that Cook can takeaway, was good for the Blue Devils.
As weird as this sounds, the biggest change may simply be that Duke is just playing better defensively.
It’s little things, simple executions on defense that they had issues with earlier in the year. They’re communicating better on their switches. For example, if a guard gets switched onto a power forward, he’s able to front in the post and he’ll have help on a pass over the top. This is such an important part of what Duke does defensively. They play an extended man-to-man and have been switching all exchanges 1-through-4, meaning that any screen involving two players that aren’t the opposing team’s center is an automatic switch. This makes it very difficult for an opponent to run their offense and puts a priority on the ability of playmakers in 1-on-1 or ball-screen actions.
Which brings me to my next point: They’re doing a better job icing side ball-screens and forcing the ball-handler to one side on high ball-screens. They’re also doing a better job of playing to the scouting report, something as simple as going under a ball-screen if the dribbler is a poor shooter. This was the biggest issue for Duke earlier in the season. They would force a team into ball-screen actions and then get lit up because they couldn’t defend those ball-screens.
Well, now they are.
Could this really be as simple as Duke finally figured out how to play defense?
Second-half adjustments push No. 3 Duke past No. 19 North Carolina
After one half of basketball in Chapel Hill, No. 3 Duke trailed No. 19 North Carolina by two points, a good margin for the visitors given the way in which they played. Luckily for Duke, North Carolina was unable to build a greater advantage and that left the door open for Mike Krzyzewski’s team provided they made some adjustments to the game plan.
The Blue Devils did just that, and their move to change the way in which they attacked the Tar Heels on both ends of the floor resulted in an 84-77 victory.
Offensively, Duke made greater use of the ball screen especially when it came to their talented guard tandem of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. Jones exceeded his output in the first meeting, scoring 24 points (17 in the second half) while also accounting for seven assists and six rebounds with just one turnover. As for Cook, he added 20 points and four rebounds, making some key baskets in the second half.
In total Duke finished with four double-digit scorers, with Jahlil Okafor adding 14 points and Justise Winslow 13, but as was the case in the first meeting Duke’s stellar backcourt led the way.
Duke was able to make North Carolina’s big men defend away from the basket, which led to them finding higher quality looks than they did in the first half. After scoring ten points in the paint in the first half, Duke tallied 22 in the second with the majority of those points coming by way of dribble penetration. The North Carolina big men would also factor into Duke’s defensive adjustment, and the Blue Devils’ greatest asset on that end of the floor was a player who finished the game with three points and six rebounds.
Duke used more full-court pressure in the second half, and thanks to Amile Jefferson’s work as the trapping big man North Carolina’s guards were forced to give up the basketball before they wanted to on multiple occasions. As a result, North Carolina big men had to help advance the ball past half court and this kept the Tar Heels out of transition.
Granted, North Carolina did shoot better than 58 percent from the field in the second half but their flow was upset by the Duke pressure. And after both teams managed to score seven points off of turnovers in the first half, Duke managed to score 14 in the second.
After having issues in the first half Duke made the adjustments needed to exploit areas in which they held an advantage. The changes paid off, resulting in Duke sweeping their bitter rival and adding another quality road win to their resume. Having already won games at Wisconsin, St. John’s, Virginia and Louisville, Duke adds another result to a resume that will in all likelihood net the program a one-seed come Selection Sunday.
Duke gets a visit from members of the Dallas Cowboys (VIDEO)
The college basketball regular season is winding down and Duke hosted some special guests earlier this week for the Blue Devils’ home game against Wake Forest. Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, quarterback Tony Romo, running back DeMarco Murray and tight end Jason Witten took in the win for Duke over the Demon Deacons. The group also had some fun taking photos with fans and even getting some time on the hardwood.
Romo played a bit of ball with Duke senior guard Quinn Cook, while Murray and Witten engaged in an amusing game of one-on-one.
Duke’s basketball program released a video of “America’s Team” visiting Durham.