HOUSTON—If you blinked, you may have missed when Quinn Cook became one of Duke's best defenders.
“He was scrappy and he was next to me the whole time, and so it was just made it tough and made it difficult, but, you know, it opened things up for the rest of my teammates, and they took advantage and were more aggressive," Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos said. "And I just tried not to force anything, but he was attached to me for most of the game.”
That is one heck of a word to describe how Cook was able to take the WCC Player of the Year more or less out of the game entirely. Pangos—who averages 11.8 points on 45.4 percent shooting and 43.8 percent from beyond the arc—mustered just four points on 2-of-8 shooting, and missed all three of his 3-point attempts.
Cook was so good defensively on Pangos that Gonzaga's leading distributor couldn't get one single pass away to a teammate that led to a score. Coming into the game averaging 4.9 assists per game, Pangos left Sunday's Regional Championship game with zero dimes. Not only did Cook make sure Pangos didn't put the ball through the hole himself, he made sure Pangos couldn't help a teammate do so either.
Cook's transformation defensively started at the same time as seemingly every other pivotal moment in Duke's season—his shift off the ball to accommodate Tyus Jones.
Duke's captain placed calls to his close friends and former Blue Devils Tyler Thornton and Nolan Smith, asking two of Duke's best defensive guards in recent memory about how they were able to have so much success on that end of the court. Cook learned to stay low when playing defense, to make the ball-handler afraid to even attempt to dribble because he was painfully aware that Cook would be right there to take the ball away.
Cook may not have the defensive reputation of Justise Winslow or Matt Jones, but that doesn't mean he hasn't markedly improved that facet of his game. According to College-Basketball-Reference.com, Cook's Defensive Rating—which estimates points allowed per 100 possessions—improved from 106.0 as a junior to 101.8 this year, before taking into account Sunday's lockdown performance on Pangos. His defensive win shares have jumped from 1.2 to 1.7 as well.
As if the improvement wasn't impressive enough, the stats are probably deflated by the fact that Cook has had to guard bigger, tougher and better players than he has in the past. After all, it was always Thornton's job to mark the best guard on the team before this season, and on the off chance that it wasn't Thornton's responsibility, the task belonged to Rasheed Sulaimon.
Looking back on the 37 games to date, Cook has gone toe-to-toe with several standout guards.
The captain held Temple's second-leading scorer, Quenton DeCosey, to just 5-of-16 shooting. Stanford's Anthony Brown, the projected 41st pick in the NBA Draft by Draft Express, averaged 15.0 points per game, but got just 11 on 4-of-12 shooting against Cook. D'Angelo Harrison, the best scorer for St. John's at 17.5 per game, shot 5-of-14 with Cook checking him.
In conference play, Cook held Louisville's Terry Rozier to 5-of-16 shooting, Notre Dame's Jerian Grant to seven points at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Syracuse's Trevor Cooney to a combined 9-of-30 shooting in two games and North Carolina's Marcus Paige to just 2-of-11 shooting in Durham.
In Houston this weekend, in addition to stifling Pangos, Cook held Pac-12 All-Conference First Team selection Delon Wright to just 10 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
That list of players—DeCosey, Brown, Harrison, Rozier, Grant, Cooney, Paige, Pangos and Wright—combined to earn four conference first-team honors, and one each of second team, third team and honorable mention.
And all of them were shut down by Quinn Cook.
The job won't get any easier for Cook as the tournament progresses. Next week he'll have his hands full with Michigan State's Travis Trice, who has averaged an astounding 19.8 points per game this tournament. If Duke advances, Cook may have to check either Harrison twin for Kentucky or one of Wisconsin's hot trio of guards.
But no matter who lines up across from Duke the rest of the way, the Blue Devil captain will be ready to answer the call.
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