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Bringing back Duke basketball's moxie

This year's Duke basketball team looks much more together than last year's squad, Gieryn writes.
This year's Duke basketball team looks much more together than last year's squad, Gieryn writes.

Last season, you just never got the sense that the Blue Devils ever really clicked. Gone were the days when playing the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium was akin to matching up against Tiger Woods (circa 2000) on the final day of a major, when you just knew Duke had the upper hand, if only by sheer moxie. It was difficult to have confidence that they would find answers when they needed them.

Consider the tone of the following quotes from head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his team after barely challenging North Carolina in Cameron in the regular season finale.

Krzyzewski: “It’s like a surprise gift. You open it up, and for the most part, it’s been a nice surprise, but I never have any idea what’s in there. Today, there was nothing. It was an empty box.”

Senior Miles Plumlee: “We can’t expect it to be done individually. We can’t expect to do it 10 minutes of the game. It’s got to be 40 minutes of the game, together.”

Freshman Austin Rivers: “It’s a feeling where you’re like, ‘We don’t know what’s going on. We’ve got to get this going.’”

But as often as Krzyzewski talked about the team searching for its identity last year, he talks about its “togetherness” this season.

En route to its 8-0 start, the Blue Devils have answered every challenge thrown their way. They have made big plays when they needed to. Despite one of the toughest schedules in all of Division I thus far, they have never felt out of a game, and more than that, they’ve seemed to be in the driver’s seat almost all the time.

No sooner does an opponent make a play that looks like it might throw the momentum against Duke, than the Blue Devils come up with a big bucket or a big defensive play. Where last year they were beating teams with miraculous finishes and comebacks, this year they’re winning with poise, consistency and will.

It’s a remarkable change, especially given that there was no overhaul in personnel over the summer. Miles Plumlee graduated, Austin Rivers left for the NBA and Andre Dawkins opted to redshirt. Incoming freshmen Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson took their places.

These changes cannot be underestimated, though. Rivers, despite the talent that made him the No. 10 overall pick in the NBA Draft, was not the sort of player who fostered team chemistry. Knowing from the moment he set foot on campus that he would be one-and-done, Rivers took more than 25 percent of Duke’s shots while he was on the floor, leading the team by a significant margin even though he was not one of the roster’s most efficient scoring options. He was also the third-worst Blue Devil defender by defensive rating, which measures opponent scoring when a given player is in the game.

Dawkins was even worse on the defensive end than Rivers, and neither player took the lead in helping to bring the clubhouse together.

This year, the locker room could hardly be more cohesive.

“They’re good guys—like, they hang together,” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s championship victory in the Battle 4 Atlantis. “They laugh at each other’s jokes. I don’t laugh at most of them. I don’t get most of them. The bottom line is they’re good guys and they like one another.”

With a knowing chuckle, he added, “That’s a big thing. It’s a real big thing.” Both Sulaimon and Jefferson are very high-character additions with strong academic reputations. In other words, classic Duke players.

Mason Plumlee has stepped up his leadership and aggressiveness, setting an example for his teammates by tirelessly working on his shooting stroke to raise his free-throw percentage by more than 20 points compared to last season. He leads a trio of seniors who also happen to be Duke’s three leading scorers, a rare feat in college basketball that has to remind the Blue Devil faithful of a certain 2009-10 team whose three leaders—in spirit if not production—were all senior starters.

But the most significant change may be the emergence of Quinn Cook, both for his role as a floor general and his leadership. Cook has played with a poise beyond his years, showing a knack for finding the perfect mix of light-hearted fun and serious focus.

“It’s when a team has confidence in its point guard that you can take off. This team has great confidence in Quinn,” Krzyzewski said. “And they’ve been very vocal about it. It’s not just us as coaches—actually it’s more the players.”

Last year’s squad lacked not only a steady, dynamic presence at the point, but also the type of emotional leader into which Cook has developed. It was Cook’s comments after the Battle 4 Atlantis championship that are perhaps most telling of the change that has taken place.

“At the end of the game, Mason grabbed me before I shot those free throws, and he said he believes in me. That just means the world to me,” Cook said. “I could score zero points, but as long as we win and my teammates are happy, especially my seniors, I’m fine with that.”

Note the way he referred to “my seniors.” When players take ownership of a team the way this group has—and the way last year’s group never quite did—it’s not surprising to see Duke’s moxie return.


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