Duke was 4-3 in ACC play, matching its worst conference start since 2002-03, and headed to undefeated Virginia when Mike Krzyzewski gave the Blue Devils the rallying cry that would define the rest of their season.
An “8” was written on the white board. That represented how many scholarship players Duke had left. And Krzyzewski told them eight is enough.
And, coupled with a key lineup switch, it was enough to earn their first trip to the Final Four since 2010.
"These guys — there are eight guys. There's not somebody hiding in the locker room that's going to come out and appear," Krzyzewski said in Houston. "And four freshmen. They've been spectacular. It's been such an incredible year."
After the Blue Devils’ number shrank to eight on Jan. 29 — the day Krzyzewski booted Rasheed Sulaimon off the team, his first such dismissal in his 35-year Duke career, just hours after Duke blew a 10-point lead and lost at Notre Dame — the Blue Devils didn’t lose for six weeks and began a 16-1 run.
It started with the 69-63 win against the No. 2-ranked Cavaliers, which featured a dagger 3-pointer from Tyus Jones with 11 seconds left that secured the win. Earlier in the game, fellow freshman Justise Winslow keyed the Blue Devils, driving to the basket with a verve.
Both players continued to play at an elevated level the rest of the year.
"It definitely was a point where I knew with one less player that my minutes would do up a little bit and I needed to produce a little bit more for this team," Jones said. "It was just a point in the season where we all had to come together, and that’s exactly what we did."
In 20 games with Sulaimon, Jones averaged 10.9 points and 4.95 assists. In the 17 games without him, Jones has averaged 12.4 points and 6.6 assists. Winslow’s statistical jump is more pronounced — his scoring average went from 10.7 to 14.6, and his rebounds from 4.5 to 8.5.
The stone-cold cool Jones displays at the end of games was a trait the Duke coaches first saw when he was a rising sophomore in high school — and that rare intangible was part of the reason Duke didn’t recruit any other point guards once they saw Jones that summer at the Peach Jam AAU tournament.
"I can't remember the last time I was nervous," Jones said in Houston. "Obviously I get butterflies like any other competitor does. You play the game because you love it, and you live for moments — you visualize yourself as a kid getting the ball in your hands and having to make a play."
Winslow benefited from more than just having the safety net that depth provides removed from under him.
First, he learned how to play through pain — the shoulder injury and fractured rib that limited him to an average of just 3 points per game for a two-week stretch in January became more manageable with time and experience. And, starting with the Feb. 21 game against Clemson, Winslow moved full time to the 4 position, turning himself into a stretch 4 — a player capable of playing the power forward position, banging in the post and making 3-point shots.
"It’s a mismatch on the offensive end," Jones said of Winslow. "It spreads the floor a little bit more. On the defensive end, he has been able to guard the 4 and be physical. He’s been getting a few more blocks and rebounding, and that makes us able to start the fast break a little bit quicker. It just provides a new element for us."
The changes required by the reduced numbers affected the Blue Devils’ practices as well. At the beginning of the year, when there were 10 scholarship players (Semi Ojeleye transferred after the first semester), practices were like games, Quinn Cook said, with lots of 5-on-5 work. That’s no longer a smart option, with six of Duke’s eight players averaging over 20 minutes per game.
"We've cut down our practice like crazy," Krzyzewski said. "Over the last two months, we've never practiced over an hour in a day."
In lieu of traditional practice, Krzyzewski has added more individual and small group work — players don’t tend to think of those sessions as traditional practices, Krzyzewski said, instead viewing it as a chance to refine their skills and get better (for example, post players may work on post moves with Jeff Capel, and guards could work on perimeter-oriented skills).
Also, coaches worked on the most important tasks early in practice — that way, Krzyzewski can go by feel, cutting a practice short when he senses the group has been pushed enough (which happened every day for the past two months).
Game plans became simpler, too, which has resulted in easier-to-understand defensive assignments. The Blue Devils went from 58th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency standings to 18th over the course of the NCAA tournament.
Can’t discount Cook’s contribution
No discussion about Duke’s success can skip over the contributions of Cook. By his own admission, for the first time, Cook took defense seriously, taking pride in shutting an opponent down, not just outscoring him. And his high play, combined with his veteran leadership, has guided Duke through the ups and downs of the year.
"As poised and as great as Tyus Jones is with his decision-making, you can see when they get in the huddle there's one voice talking and that's Quinn Cook’s," said Robert Morris coach Andy Toole, whose Colonials lost to Duke in the round of 64. "He's getting everybody on the same page and getting everybody working together, and I think that's been something from an outsider, obviously, something that's pretty remarkable to see from a guy like that in his senior year."
It’s been a bit unconventional, Krzyzewski’s management of this season, but it has worked. The longtime coach frequently says that all teachers should always continue to learn — and even after 1,000 wins (which happened just four days before Sulaimon’s departure), Krzyzewski continues to do just that.
"This has been one of my favorite groups. I mean, they've been easy to coach," Krzyzewski said. " There's only a good attitude, only a good attitude and a willingness to learn. So, sometimes freshmen don't learn that until they're older, but these guys knew it from the beginning; that's why they've had a special year."
And the Blue Devils have never doubted Krzyzewski, even when they first heard that eight is enough.
"He’s the greatest. Anything he says, we believe, we trust," Cook said. "That’s why we came here, to trust him and learn from him. He’s the best in the business."
Season in a snapshot
A look at the four-week window that has defined Duke’s season:
Jan. 7: Quinn Cook rallies Duke at Wake Forest for 73-65 win, as Blue Devils (14-0) keep pace with Kentucky, Virginia as only undefeated teams.
Jan. 11: N.C. State storms PNC court after handing Blue Devils their first loss, 87-75. “Were we as tough as we needed to be? No,” Mike Krzyzewski said afterward. “Does that mean we're soft? No. We're a good team.”
Jan. 13: Miami ends Duke’s 41-game home winning streak in dominant fashion, 90-74. "I don't think we're confident right now," Krzyzewski said. “I don’t see it. I don’t feel it.” But, he later adds: “I love my team. I believe in my team.”
Jan. 17: Duke ends two-game losing streak by winning at No. 6 Louisville, 63-52. Quinn Cook said it took two losses, but Duke regained its edge.
Jan. 28: Duke led by 10 but collapsed late, allowing Notre Dame to rally for 77-73 win. The 4-3 ACC start matches Duke’s worst since 2002-03.
Jan. 29: Krzyzewski kicks Rasheed Sulaimon off the team, saying it’s a privilege to play for Duke and Sulaimon was “unable to consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our group.”
Jan. 31: Two days later, staring at a possible 4-4 ACC start, Duke upsets No. 2 and undefeated Virginia 69-63. “We kept believing in each other,” Cook said. “We didn’t give up.” That started a 16-1 stretch that led to the Final Four.