Lost amid Rasheed Sulaimon’s barrage of 3-pointers and Mason Plumlee’s portfolio of acrobatic dunks in Duke’s 84-64 win against Maryland Saturday was something the Blue Devils didn’t do much of: Turn the ball over.
Duke recorded a season-low four turnovers and did not give it up once in the second half.
“Against good teams like that, especially like Maryland with good athletes like [Dez] Wells, [Nick] Faust, you can’t give those guys transitions,” point guard Quinn Cook said. “We really did a good job of taking care of the ball.”
The Blue Devils are turning it over just 11.1 times per game, a full turnover per game lower than the last two seasons and the same rate as the 2009-2010 National Championship team.
And the low turnover rate is not due to a slow pace of play, either. Duke ranks fifth in the nation in turnovers per possession, giving it up just 15.5 percent of their times down the floor. Against Maryland, the Blue Devils turned it over on 6.2 percent of their possessions while forcing 14 Terrapin turnovers on 21.5 percent of their times down the floor.
Perhaps what makes Duke’s success handling the ball all season most impressive is the teams they have done it against.
Virginia Commonwealth, which Duke beat in the Battle 4 Atlantis, forces 20.4 turnovers per game—the most in Division I—and Duke gave it up just eight times to Shaka Smart’s HAVOC defense. The Commodores have forced two teams to turn the ball over 34 times in a game and against them, no team other than Duke has limited its number of turnovers to single digits.
The Blue Devils also played Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis and finished with 14 turnovers, more than Duke’s season average but well below the 19.5 turnovers the Cardinals force per game.
No man bears a bigger burden for the team’s ball control than the team’s littlest man in Cook, who played nearly all 40 minutes against the Terrapins and coughed it up just twice.
“As a point guard, I take that [responsibility],” Cook said. “That’s the biggest stat that I worry about. I take that seriously.”
Cook has turned it over two or fewer times in 11 of the last 12 games despite acting as the primary ball-handler and playing a grueling 34.5 minutes per game in that span.
How has he done it?
“Just poise,” he said. “Making the right decisions, not trying to do too much.”
Jon Scheyer was always praised as the ultimate game manager in Duke’s National Championship season, finishing with a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio, and Cook is not far behind with a 2.8 ratio this season. In the ACC, Cook trails only North Carolina’s Dexter Strickland in the category and ranks well ahead of N.C. State’s Lorenzo Brown, who leads the ACC with 7.2 assists per game but gives it away 3.5 times per game.
The other guy who has the ball in his hands a lot is senior forward Mason Plumlee, and that has only become more true since Ryan Kelly went down with his foot injury.
Kelly left midway through the Clemson game, and with the increased attention of the Tiger defense, Plumlee committed five of his six turnovers that game in the second half. Similar problems plagued him against Georgia Tech and Miami when he turned it over four and five times, respectively.
But Plumlee clearly adjusted against Maryland’s burly frontcourt, turning it over just once and recording three assists. All three of those assists were on 3-pointers, hit by Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Seth Curry.
Whereas Plumlee found that he was holding onto the ball too long in those previous games, he was faster to hit the open man against Maryland.
“I was quicker to kick. I anticipated people sagging in a little more so I wasn’t forcing it,” said Plumlee, who finished 9-for-12 from the field after going a combined 12-for-35 in the previous two games. “I have to be efficient.”
And as the Blue Devils seek to develop their identity without Ryan Kelly, they need to continue to play smart basketball and make adjustments like Plumlee did.
“We’re obviously a different team without Ryan and we have to play like we won’t have him,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I think we will have him at some time, but we have to figure out who we are without him.”