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.'”