As the Duke Blue Devils attempt to win their fifth NCAA tournament championship in school history, their success will depend heavily on sophomore point guard Quinn Cook.
While Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry are the stars of Duke's current squad, Cook is the X-factor that will determine how far the team goes in the Big Dance.
Cook was a nobody on the team last year, playing just over 10 minutes per game and not making much of a difference. However, coach Mike Krzyzewski saw promise in the young gun, and Cook has become the starting point guard for the team and he is second on the team in minutes per game with 33.8.
That's how important he has become.
Cook was one of the unknowns of Duke's team entering the season. He quickly improved and became one of the most important players on the team in the beginning of the season, playing against some of the best point guards in the country.
When playing against No. 2 Louisville and No. 4 Ohio State in the beginning of the season, Cook played against the best leader in the country (Peyton Siva) and the best defensive point guard (Aaron Craft).
However, Cook did not shy away from the challenge—he embraced it.
After going for 15 points, six assists and four rebounds in 34 minutes against Louisville to win the Battle 4 Atlantis, he went back to Cameron Indoor Stadium and ate Craft alive. Cook played all 40 minutes and going for 12 points, eight assists and six rebounds in the victory, while holding Craft to one assist, compared to three turnovers and five fouls.
There was a steep learning curve for Cook, but he climbed over every mountain put in front of him. However, he is still a young player, and he has been struggling as of late.
Cook has recorded more than five assists in a game only once in his last 10, and he is averaging 3.3 assists per game compared to 2.5 turnovers.
Point guards are typically the most important players on their teams because they run the offense and have the ball in their hands more than any other position. However, Cook's inconsistency down the stretch makes him even more important, as having an off day could send the Blue Devils packing early.
We know that Plumlee will be dominant inside. We know that Curry can light teams up from the outside. We know that Ryan Kelly can help inside and extend the defense with his 3-point shooting when healthy. We know these things because we have seen them time and again this season.
The only question is Cook.
After not playing much in last year's NCAA tournament, Cook does not have a lot of experience on the biggest stage.
While early in the season he was overcoming every obstacle, he has not been the same in recent games—and that could come back to haunt Coach K's crew.
There is absolutely no denying how important Cook has become to this team. He plays more than anyone else other than National Player of the Year candidate Mason Plumlee, and he is the catalyst for the team's offense.
But is he ready for the challenge?
Cook is vital to Duke's success, but he simply may not be ready for this. Depending on who the Blue Devils play in the first two rounds, we could see Cook become overwhelmed and nervous, and if he starts forcing things like young point guards tend to do, the Blue Devils are in serious trouble.
When judging how far Duke will go in this year's tournament, you need only to watch Quinn Cook and see how well he is playing.
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