Earlier this season, when everything the Blue Devils touched seemed to turn to gold, coach Mike Krzyzewski was adamant that senior Quinn Cook was a major key making the young Duke team go.
In the past month of conference play, the No. 4 Blue Devils (17-2, 4-2 ACC) have proven mortal – but Cook still remains a vital cog in the offense. The Blue Devils will need him to shoot well from the field Wednesday night at No. 8 Notre Dame (19-2, 7-1).
Krzyzewski’s 1,000th coaching victory Sunday at Madison Square Garden against St. John’s was great for confidence and ceremonial purposes, but Duke’s next two games – against the Fighting Irish and at No. 2 Virginia on Saturday – will have a large impact on the Blue Devils’ ability to remain in contention for one of the top seeds in the ACC tournament.
Every opponent preparing for Blue Devils’ offense starts with Jahlil Okafor, the prodigious center and likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Most teams have double-teamed Okafor, but that won’t necessarily be easy for Notre Dame. The Irish have 6-foot-10 Zach Auguste,but they play 6-5 Pat Connaughton as a stretch power forward.
“We really haven’t done that much,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of doubling the post. “But that’s something we’ve got to digest a little bit, giving (Okafor) different looks.”
Okafor has drawn rave reviews from Krzyzewski and opposing coaches for his ability to pass out of double teams. But Okafor’s teammates have struggled at times to turn those passes into made shots. In ACC games, the Blue Devils are knocking down 36 percent of their 3-point attempts. Duke is certainly beatable when hitting below that percentage.
Sunday against St. John’s, Cook went 4-for-8 from behind the arc (Tyus Jones, who went 2-for-5, was the only other Duke player to connect on multiple 3s). All four of Cook’s makes came at critical times.
Cook’s first 3 ended an 11-2 St. John’s run, putting Duke up 26-21 midway through the first half. His next came in the final minute of the half, cutting the Red Storms lead to 40-39.
Cook made both of his attempts from deep in the second half – one after the Red Storm first went up by 10 and then another that gave the Blue Devils back the lead for good with 5 minutes, 41 seconds left in the game.
If the Blue Devils are going to keep pace with Notre Dame’s offense, they need to hit from 3-point range, capitalizing on Okafor’s potential assists.
“We’re better, if he passes out, when we hit shots,” Krzyzewski said. “The games that we play well, we hit a good percentage of those shots. In our first five ACC games, we didn’t really shoot the ball well. And in our last one (against Pittsburgh), we shot it well. So we have to help him out by completing the play when he does pass out.”
The Irish have the most efficient offense in the country, according to statistician Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Notre Dame’s guard-driven offense, led by ACC player of the year candidate Jerian Grant, connects on 60 percent of its 2-point attempts (best in the nation) and 40 percent of its 3s (16th nationally). The Irish guards also protect the ball well, with the second-lowest turnover rate nationally.
“I’m always confident in our offense,” Brey said. “We may not be in gear in the first half, but eventually over 40 minutes and 60-70 possessions, we’re able to get into a rhythm. That is what has bailed us out in many of these close games.”
Brey wondered aloud during the ACC teleconference Monday if the Blue Devils would use the 2-3 zone they debuted against St. John’s, featuring Okafor in the middle and Marshall Plumlee to his left. That length could bother the Irish, but Connaughton’s 3-point shooting ability could act as a zone-buster.
It should be a high-scoring game between two offenses that rely on different styles. And if it’s a game that Duke wins, don’t be surprised if Cook’s hot hand plays a key role.