One-and-done has been the fad in college basketball in the last number of years. But while programs have had their share of regular-season success using the strategy, there have been few that have cut down the nets in April.
Connecticut had upperclassmen Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright guiding the Huskies to the title last season. Louisville had Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng the year before. There was the 2011 Kemba Walker Huskies. The 2010 Jon Scheyer/Nolan Smith/Kyle Singler Blue Devils. The 2009 Tyler Hansbrough/Ty Lawson/Danny Green Tar Heels. The list stretches on for pages and pages.
And herein lies the problem for the top-seeded Blue Devils.
Duke starts three prodigious freshmen in Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor. All three were Integris Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Year Finalists, with Okafor taking home the honors Tuesday. Okafor also became the first freshman to win ACC Player of the Year this season. The trio has combined for 51.6 percent of the Blue Devils' scoring, and in 24 of 33 games a freshman has led Duke in scoring. Additionally, 21 of the 27 20-point games from a Blue Devil have come from one of the team's precocious neophytes.
But as good as those freshmen are, they alone will not be able to carry Duke to the promised land. It simply isn't the way college basketball works.
The only team of the past decade to raise a banner at the end of the year while featuring mostly freshmen was Kentucky's 2012 team. But the difference maker for them wasn't the transcendent Anthony Davis, or freakish Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Instead, it was the team's lone true rotation senior—Darius Miller.
Miller wasn't the team's second option offensively the way Cook arguably is for the Blue Devils, but he surely made his impact felt in the NCAA Tournament. For the season, Miller averaged 26.1 minutes and 9.9 points on 47.4 percent shooting. However, during the NCAA tournament he scaled up his production. Miller's minutes ballooned to 30.3 per game, and his scoring up to 11.7 points on 56.1 percent shooting. His two 19-point outbursts during the tournament were the lift his Wildcats needed to get to the Final Four in New Orleans. Sure, it was Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist who garnered the national attention—just like it's currently Okafor and Tyus Jones for Duke—but Miller was the difference-maker.
To provide the necessary Miller-esque experience for NCAA tournament success, Duke will need none other than its captain, Quinn Cook. Although Cook isn't the only upperclassman on the team and he speaks glowingly of his teammates' preparedness, the other three non-freshman haven't really had any meaningful tournament experience. Amile Jefferson is the most experienced of the group, having played a total of 47 minutes in his team's five games, including some key minutes against Creighton in 2013 and a start against Mercer last season. But that's hardly a long track record. Marshall Plumlee has just six tournament minutes under his belt. Matt Jones only two.
The problem with Cook as the experienced sage, however, is that he simply hasn't been great in the postseason. Duke's floor general has played in 14 games between the ACC and NCAA tournaments, playing 24.7 minutes per game. In those games Cook has averaged just 8.1 points per game on 39.6 percent shooting—not exactly eye-popping numbers.
The numbers look slightly worse in NCAA tournament games for the captain, where Cook scores 8.5 points on weak 33.3 percent shooting. To get the same sort of lift from their senior that Miller provided for Kentucky, the Blue Devils are going to need regular-season Cook, not postseason Cook.
In this year's ACC tournament loss to Notre Dame, Cook was hardly his usual self, shooting a paltry 2-for-12 from the floor en route to just seven points. The performance was bad enough that Cook revealed it took him "a day...a day and a half" to get himself straightened out from the on-court calamity. But after a players-only meeting in Cook's hotel room and some time to get his head right, the point guard is ready for action once again.
Despite his checkered postseason record, it can't be forgotten that he was more or less the only player who came to play against Mercer last season. Despite being relegated to the bench, Cook led the team in scoring with 23 points and was the only player on the team to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor.
Coming into the season, Cook was set to be a pivotal part of the Blue Devils' success. He has mostly cashed in on his promise by putting up career-highs in points, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. But now, in March, the pressure is back squarely on the captain's shoulders, where he will have to be "The Guy" once more to get that fifth banner he's had his sights set on all season.
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