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Led by Cook, Duke is more balanced and tougher this year

November 23, 2014 Columns No Comments

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – When Tyus Jones committed to Duke, the analysis included much more than just how good adding the stud point guard made the Blue Devils’ recruiting haul or how good he would be. It even went further than just how good Duke would be this year, although that seemed easy: most figure this would make Duke more like a national title contender than they were last year.

Some understandably wondered what it meant for Quinn Cook, the senior guard who had spent a good deal of time at the point in his career. The past week has given an early answer to that, as well as something more important about this Duke team: they are very different than last year, in a good way.

As Duke took home the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic with a convincing 70-59 win over Stanford on Saturday night, it was clear that this team is more balanced and tougher than last year’s team. It’s reflected at the defensive end, where the Blue Devils have shined, and in how they have responded to five games in eight days, including three challenges in five days away from home.

Cook is no small part of that, and not just because the senior was named the tournament MVP or is leading the team in scoring. He’s come out playing great basketball, and not necessarily playing off the ball because he’s handling it at times and has 21 assists with just four turnovers in addition to shooting just under 50 percent from long range thus far. Far from a forgotten man, he’s been arguably their most consistent player in the first eight days, and the player whose lead the team is following.

“Quinn is playing great,” said head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He is so deserving of the MVP.”

While there has been a lot of talk about how much talent John Calipari has accumulated at Kentucky, Duke has nine McDonald’s All-Americans of their own. Jahlil Okafor has been getting plenty of attention, especially as some have picked him as preseason Player of the Year, but he’s far from alone. Saturday night was a reminder that Duke can win plenty of games where he doesn’t have a big night. He ended up with a double-double of 10 points and 12 rebounds, but was far from a dominant figure in the game.

Instead, Justise Winslow, another of those McDonald’s All-Americans, was the best of the freshmen on the evening with 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists against one turnover, and at times that will probably happen. Winslow does a lot of things well, though nothing exceedingly well, but most of all can simply play at both ends. He’s played all three perimeter positions at one time or another, so he gives them another ball handler, another who can score, another who can defend, and his motor helps make this team go.

Then there is Jones, the talented point guard who can really run a team. Perhaps indicative of the toughness of this team, he didn’t have great numbers on Saturday night but was no small part of this win. He doesn’t have to score for them to win, evidenced in part by his 5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio thus far.

The Blue Devils were the picture of balance on Saturday night. Cook led the way with 18 points, but three others scored in double figures and Amile Jefferson ended up with nine and seven rebounds. Cook led four players who scored between 15 and 19 points against Michigan State on Tuesday night as well, and he added six assists with no turnovers. You get the idea.

Thanks to their defense, the Blue Devils have won despite not shooting well at times. They shot below 40 percent from the field both nights in Brooklyn, yet won in a blowout Friday night and posted a convincing win on Saturday night. Even so, Krzyzewski liked how the offense ran, feeling that if they do that more often the numbers will be better.

“It was a really good performance by us without being pretty offensively,” said Krzyzewski.

Duke is always going to have talent, and will in many years be a team capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. In some years, for all their talent, they have clear flaws. Last year’s team had clear flaws, but this team has far fewer based on their first give games, so this team will be more dangerous. Most of all, they are clearly a tougher team than last year. That was also apparent as they walked off the Barclays Center floor on Saturday night as Coaches vs. Cancer Classic champions.

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