Duke basketball is 11-0 and has the title of No. 1 team in the nation. As the players head home to celebrate the holiday season, The Chronicle is giving a position-by-position analysis of this year's team, starting today with the point guards.
Duke's point guard play has perhaps been the biggest surprise in the early going. Hopes were high for sophomore Quinn Cook this season, as was discussed here, but he has exceeded all expectations. Junior Tyler Thornton has gone from afterthought offensively to a key role player, while keeping up his patented stifling defense.
Last season the Blue Devils averaged a meager 12 assists per game, but it has been a completely different story this year. The team is averaging 17 dimes each game, lead by Cook and his 6.0 helpers per contest. Thornton, who averaged just 2.0 assists in 21.1 minutes last season, has made a giant leap this year, upping his per-game average to 3.3 while playing only an extra minute per game. The guards' dishing has lead to easy swishing for the rest of the Duke players, as the team is shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 41.0 percent from beyond the arc.
Assists aren't the only way Duke's point guard duo is changing each and every game. Neither Thornton nor Cook was an exceptional shooter last season, shooting 35.1 and 25.0 percent respectively. This season, Thornton's improvement has been modest -- he's up to 35.7 percent this season -- but he has been hitting in big spots, like his consecutive triples against Elon Thursday. Cook meanwhile, has been the team's most accurate sharpshooter this season. Cook is making a full 50 percent of his three-point attempts, and has attempted the third-most threes on the team.
While the assists and threes are nice, Cook and Thornton have made the biggest impact rebounding. Yes, the two 6-foot-1 guards have been integral in helping Duke keep the rebounding differential close. Cook is third on the team in rebounding, averaging 3.9 per game, or, just 0.9 fewer per game than 6-foot-11 Ryan Kelly. In fact, Cook has matched or out-rebounded Kelly four times this season, including three of the last four games. Thornton -- averaging a career-high 2.5 rebounds per game -- has performed the same feat four times as well.
Duke's point guards are the engine that make the team run. Cook and Thornton have set their big men up with easy shot after easy shot, propelling Mason Plumlee into the National Player of the Year conversation. As long as they can continue to keep turnovers at a minimum -- the team is averaging fewer turnovers this season than last -- Cook and Thornton could captain a deep run into March.