College Basketball

Duke strikes a balance with freshman talent and senior leadership

Duke’s Tyus Jones, left, and Quinn Cook talk to each other as they come back to the huddle during a timeout against N.C. State in the quarterfinals of the 2015 New York Life ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro on March 12, 2015.
Duke’s Tyus Jones, left, and Quinn Cook talk to each other as they come back to the huddle during a timeout against N.C. State in the quarterfinals of the 2015 New York Life ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro on March 12, 2015. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Jahlil Okafor is an inquisitive 19-year-old, so when he wasn’t quite sure how selection Sunday would go, he turned to his usual source for all questions basketball-related.

Do they announce all the No. 1 seeds at the beginning of the show? he asked Quinn Cook. Does it go by region?

“Jah’s just asking questions the whole time, ‘What happens next, what happens next?’ ” Cook said, smiling. “He’s a freshman, a young freshman. Didn’t know what was going on.”

Okafor and Cook have been roommates on all of Duke’s road trips this season, and that has given the two plenty of time to grow close (and, most recently, watch the hit Fox show “Empire”). And while Okafor might be Duke’s most-talented player, he’s surely thankful he doesn’t have to pace Duke alone as the No. 1 seed Blue Devils open the NCAA tournament Friday against No. 16 Robert Morris (20-14).

“I can’t imagine playing every night without Quinn,” Okafor said. “He is somebody I always rely on.”

That’s an advantage this Duke team has over the previous freshman-heavy tournament teams of 2014 and 2012: high-level, on-court, senior leadership. Austin Rivers didn’t have that. Neither did Jabari Parker.

“If you are going to be one of the main guys as a freshman, this has got to be the hardest place,” Rivers said last summer. “And I say that only because the pressure here is a lot higher. A lot of people hate Duke, and a lot of people love Duke. It’s going to be televised every game, and people love when you lose and hate when you win. That’s the pressure that you get to take on when you come here.

“It’s hard, because you’re going to come in and the older guys are going to be like, ‘Who is this young guy?’ For any incoming freshman trying to be a leader or trying to be one of the main guys in the program, you have to lead with your play and go out there and work harder than everybody else and prove you’re the best player. Then you can slowly transition to being more vocal.”

Being vocal was something coach Mike Krzyzewski tried to drill into Rivers during his one year at Duke, but it didn’t quite click for him, Rivers said, until after he was gone, in the NBA. It wasn’t enough just to live in the gym and work on his game – as a point guard, he had to be more vocal.

Krzyzewski, too, has drilled that into Tyus Jones, another quieter-by-nature freshman point guard. (Rivers, at least, described himself as quiet) Early on, Jones had a tendency to defer, pass up open shots and not, as Krzyzewski put it, “be a mother,” directing his teammates to the right spots. (“Mothers are the greatest point guards in the world,” Krzyzewski said. “They’ve got four kids, every one of them – you’re doing this, come with me, get in the backseat. That’s what a point guard should do.”)

And Jones has had help in figuring it all out.

“Quinn has been superb with him,” Krzyzewski said. “That relationship has exceeded what I could have ever thought would happen. I thought it was going to be good – it has exceeded that. They are really, really close and together.

“Quinn sees stuff, and then he sees it better if he is not handling the ball. So, you basically have two minds out there and two ball handlers who are okay with one guy having it more. We’re a smarter team, having those two guys out like that.”

Cook, too, has improved each year. It took him three years to, in his words, finally realize he needed to play defense, and that has been instrumental to Duke’s success at times (his work against UNC’s Marcus Paige and Jerian Grant in the home win against Notre Dame most immediately come to mind).

Cook’s leadership, along with the freshman talent, appears to be the right mix for Duke. And Krzyzewski knows he needs both parts.

“You’re not going to be successful – for us – just having guys that are here for one or two years,” he said. “You need that combination.”

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No. 1 Duke vs. No. 16 Robert Morris

When: 7:10 p.m., Friday.

Where: Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte.

TV/Radio: CBS, 620 AM/102.9 FM.

Projected starting lineups

Duke (29-4)

G Tyus Jones, 11.6 ppg, 5.8 apg

G Quinn Cook, 15.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg

G Matt Jones 6.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg

F Justise Winslow, 12.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg

C Jahlil Okafor, 17.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg

Robert Morris (20-14)

G Kavon Stewart, 6.3 ppg, 4.5 apg

G Marcquise Reed, 14.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg

G Rodney Pryor, 15.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg

F Elijah Minnie, 7.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg

F Aaron Tate, 3.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg

Three keys

How does Duke come out of the gate?

Against Notre Dame, Duke came out sluggish and fell in too big of a hole early to dig out of later. No need to give Robert Morris any early hope of joining the Lehigh and Mercer line.

How healthy is Jahlil Okafor?

Okafor’s ankle has been bothering him more than he let on – did extra rest help get him closer to full health?

How many minutes do Quinn Cook and Okafor have to play?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so any extra rest Mike Krzyzewski could grab for his key guys could be beneficial later in the big dance.

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