INDIANAPOLIS — It could have been different for Duke. All those freshmen with all that talent might not have been enough. The fastest horses still need a chariot driver.
Which, as tipoff of the national championship game nears, brings us to Quinn Cook. Possibly, the senior who saved the season in Durham.
It is the 13th of January, and there is trouble in Duke’s world.
The defense is a leaky roof, the execution lax. Two days before, the Blue Devils had lost by 12 points at NC State, but on this night they are in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium, where they have won 41 in a row. A place to heal. But then they get shredded by Miami (Fla.) 90-74. The Hurricanes shoot 67 percent the second half, right there in Mike Krzyzewski’s home zip code.
It is the first time in six years Duke has lost consecutive regular season games. It is the first time in 19 years the Blue Devils have endured back-to-back defeats by double digits. Something is wrong, and Krzyzewski mentions he has sensed it for weeks.
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“I haven’t been able to figure out how to change it,” he says.
Miami chills the Duke crowd into grumbling irrelevance. “To hear Cameron like this,” Cook says, “is not a good feeling.”
In four days, Duke must travel to Louisville. Another loss would be three in a row, and a genuine crisis. “We’ve got to figure it out — together,” Amile Jefferson says.
Eleven weeks later, we know that they did. They went to Louisville, and Krzyzewski trotted out a zone defense, Duke won 63-52, and there has really been no looking back.
The defense has transformed into a fearsome weapon, and the Blue Devils have won five NCAA tournament games by an average of 17.6 points, allowing only Michigan State to break 60. They are shooting 50.4 percent in the tournament. Everything is clicking, when back in January, nothing was.
What happened? Well, there was the night all the players gathered around Cook’s television. No Coach K. No Coach Anybody. Just a bunch of kids trying to figure it all out, and a senior fulfilling his role as the leader of the pack.
“We let two games get away from us,” Cook said this past weekend. “When you lose two in a row, your confidence can go elsewhere. We had a big game at Louisville that Saturday. I just wanted to make sure the guys’ confidence was OK, and just tell everybody we’re fine. I just had everybody to my house to watch TV and to just relax and get away from basketball a little bit, and make sure everybody was OK.”
A few days later, he would find out how OK in Louisville. There was no bigger turning point this season for Duke. Had the Blue Devils gone the wrong way that week, who knows what might have happened?
“That game,” Cook said, “really changed our season around.”
No wonder the younger Blue Devils speak of Cook in near reverence. “Since the first day we got there on campus, he’s just really took the leadership,” freshman Tyus Jones said. “So we’ve just followed him ever since.”
No wonder Krzyzewski sat him down before this season, looked him in the eye and told him he needed him to be a mature leader and a steady hand, with all the freshmen arriving at Duke.
“I said ‘I’m going to depend on you,'” Krzyzewski said. “He’s taken that to the highest level.”
No wonder he is now Krzyzewski’s extension on and off the court; the kind of coach-veteran synergy that can accomplish great feats. A march to the national championship game against Wisconsin, for instance.
This was Krzyzewski on his senior. “Along through the season, you just become really close to somebody. It’s like [through] the frequency of contact, intimate situations, tough situations, that a relationship grows. We have an unbelievable relationship.”
This was Cook on his coach. “He’s been like a father to me.”
Cook’s maturation was not always easy. As an incoming freshman full of himself after a batch high school awards, former Blue Devil and pro and close friend Nolan Smith challenged him to some 1-on-1. He beat Cook three times 11-0.
“I had to grow up,” Cook said.
So he did, and look where it has led him. “I’m like a kid in candy store here,” he said of the Final Four. “These guys have been easy to lead. They’re very humble, they’re very selfless.”
And now they’re very, very good. Cook mentioned Sunday how Krzyzewski is forever telling his team about the special deeds of Blue Devils past. A Christian Laettner parable here, a Grant Hill ode there. “You obviously want to be one of those player he talks about in the future,” Cook said.
Good chance, he will be. All is well at Duke, and Monday night presents its shining chance.
It didn’t seem headed that way on the 13th of January.