DURHAM, N.C. — Last summer, when Mike Krzyzewski and Jeff Capel were away coaching USA Basketball to yet another world championship, good things were happening back home at the same time.
Duke’s basketball program hit a rut last March, when a loss to Mercer eliminated the Blue Devils from the NCAA Tournament.
For rising senior guard Quinn Cook, it was the second time in his career Duke had been knocked out of the NCAA Tournament without winning a game.
Poor defensive effort had been blamed for the loss to 14th-seeded Mercer last March in Raleigh just as it had in March 2012 when 15th-seeded Lehigh stunned Duke in Greensboro.
— Quinn Cook
Cook, along with junior forward Amile Jefferson, had had enough.
“I think we got tired of all the commentators and everybody talking about how bad we played defense,” Cook said. “So guys took it personal in the summer. When the freshmen got here, [they] saw what we did. Those guys can play defense as well. It started with the upperclassmen really being annoyed about all the talk about our defense last year.”
There was plenty of reason for the criticism. Duke allowed opponents to make 45.6 percent of their shots and score 67.4 points per game last season as the Blue Devils went 26-9.
It had been more than 20 years since opponents had shot that well against Duke in a season. Only the 2011-12 team, which suffered the loss to Lehigh, had allowed more points per game (68.1) than last season’s team during the past five seasons.
But this season, as No. 2 Duke has won its first 13 games, evidence of the team’s recommitment to defense is obvious. The Blue Devils (13-0, 1-0 in Atlantic Coast Conference) have seen their opposition shoot just 40.9 percent so far while averaging 60.6 points per game.
The work, both physical and mental, that Cook, Jefferson and the other veterans insisted the team do during the summer — even when Krzyzewski and Capel were gone — appears to have paid off.
“Coach was gone a lot this summer so we wanted to take a leadership role,” Cook said. “We wanted us to be ready when he got back. Myself and Amile really got after the younger guys. It has to hurt when we get scored on. Guys did a great job of that this summer.”
The Blue Devils pushed themselves to get into better shape than they had before, knowing that would be a key to playing their best defense.
“It’s the shape you have to be in,” Cook said. “That’s why we did all the sprints in the summer. Not to sound cliché, but if you are in great shape you can play better defense. I think that’s why we can put pressure on the ball for a lot of the game and not get tired.”
The freshmen have bought in as well. Having 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor in the middle would help any team play defense better, but guard Tyus Jones and forward Justise Winslow have bought into the mentality as well while starting all 13 games so far.
Their arrival means junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon, a regular starter as a freshman when Duke advanced to the NCAA Tournament elite eight, is now coming off the bench. Rather than sulk or feel put-upon, Sulaimon now teams with sophomore guard Matt Jones to give Duke a serious defensive punch on the perimeter off the bench.
Their on-ball pressure means Duke doesn’t take a step back in that area when the starters take a break. Redshirt junior Marshall Plumlee, a 7-foot center, plays a factor as well.
“We are longer and taller [on the] perimeter and more athletic really with those two guys in,” Krzyzewski said. “At times when they’re in with Marshall [Plumlee], Marshall can be an outstanding defender because he’s a good [athlete] and can play the ball screens differently than [Okafor]. He can blitz them or trap them. It gives us a different look.”
Duke has a different look from previous years because defense is obviously important to everyone on the roster. Their extra conditioning during the summer was just the start.
“Guys did extra,” Cook said. “Guys wanted to run. We didn’t look at it as a punishment. We looked at it as a way to get better.”