Thank God for Duke football, because the Blue Devils basketball team is ebbing toward an unholy mess. Duke's 91–90 win over Vermont was as ugly as it gets. Fortunately, the Blue Devils escaped being upset by the Catamounts despite playing defense like they were being coached by Mike D'Antoni.
Vermont came into the game with a pedestrian offense and a 1 -4 record accrued against the likes of Saint Joseph's, Siena, Bryant, Providence and Wagner. And yet the Catamounts set up a layup line in Cameron Indoor Stadium that allowed them to shoot 64.8 percent from the field. The visitors had a lead late in the game, but poor free-throw shooting down the stretch sunk their upset bid.
For their part, Duke did a pretty good job on offense and at the charity stripe. Unfortunately, any positives on that side of the ball were totally undermined by a defensive effort that was more inept than JP Tokoto shooting free throws.
These are the Duke player grades for the Vermont game, which are so bad they will need to be signed by a parental guardian and returned.
Jabari Parker (C)
As per usual, Parker was an offensive tour de force. He went 11-of-16 from the field and hit some of Duke's most critical shots. Wisely, Parker planted himself in the post and grabbed five offensive rebounds. These were extremely important for a Duke team that needed every single point and extra offensive possession they could get.
The problem is that Parker continues to make mistakes on defense. His switches are slow, and he continues to fail on help defense. Vermont and East Carolina were able to get penetration against the Blue Devils. When this happens, it's imperative that the post defenders collapse to stop the ball. Once this happens, a second defender needs to cover for the player providing help defense.
Parker hasn't grasped this concept yet. He's still learning the game, but his mistakes on interior defense played a huge role in allowing Vermont to get layup after layup.
Rodney Hood (C)
Hood is perhaps the only player worse than Parker when it comes to help defense. He continually fails to rotate when a teammate leaves a defender to stop penetration. Hood's on-the-ball defense has also left something to be desired, which is absurd given his speed.
On offense, Hood once again provided the Blue Devils with plenty of scoring. He also significantly contributed on the boards by getting seven rebounds. Most importantly, Hood hit the game-winning free throw after driving the lane and earning a foul.
Hood's offense is varied enough to provide Duke with both inside and outside scoring. That ability makes him a leader for the Blue Devils. He now needs to show that sort of leadership on defense. It's also worth mentioning that his game-winning drive left a healthy chunk of time on the clock for Vermont. That could've proved costly if the Catamounts had been able to get a shot off.
Amile Jefferson (F)
As with Parker, Jefferson failed on numerous occasions to rotate properly in the post. At times, the slender sophomore looked completely lost on defense. This is a complete reversal from the player that had previously shown signs of becoming a defensive leader.
His six rebounds were positives, but Jefferson scored just two points. So at the end of the day, Jefferson was a defensive liability and an offensive non-factor. That combo led to a mere 12 minutes of playing time for Jefferson as Duke decided to go to a three-guard lineup.
Jefferson's role is pretty simple but extremely important. He needs to be the defensive anchor in the post and get rebounds. Vermont's abundance of points in the paint clearly demonstrates that Jefferson failed to establish a defensive post presence.
Rasheed Sulaimon (F)
Sulaimon has been forced to adjust to an offense that revolves around Hood and Parker. Six games into the season, he still hasn't found himself in Duke's offense. Sulaimon is a strong slasher, but his reticence to drive to the basket has killed the key to his offensive game.
In Duke's first two games of the season, Sulaimon had 20 points against Davidson and 13 against Kansas. In the four games after that, he has a combined 15 points (via ESPN). Given how bad Duke's defense was against Vermont, it was dangerous to put so much of the scoring burden on just two players.
If Sulaimon doesn't step up on offense, his defense isn't good enough to merit him a starting position. His paltry two points versus Vermont highlights the fact that Sulaimon simply isn't making any kind of positive contribution at the moment.
Quinn Cook (F)
If you only look at the stats, this grade seems far too low. If you were unfortunate enough to actually watch the defensive debacle against Vermont, this grade is too generous.
Cook had 14 points and eight assists. Once again, when Cook drove the lane, he created all kinds of scoring opportunities. Conversely, when he puts up contested threes, Cook drags down Duke's offense. When Parker was single-handedly keeping the Blue Devils in it late in the game, Cook opted to take a three without even getting Parker a touch on that offensive possession.
Worse than his questionable offensive decisions, Cook continues to be unable to play anything resembling defense. Greg Paulus did a better job of staying in front of his man than Cook. J.J. Redick did a better job on switches than Cook. And those two former Blue Devils played the sort of defense you see at a local YMCA.
Over and over, Cook lets the ball handler blow by. On screens, Cook was confused about whether to switch or not. More than once, he left his defensive assignment altogether. This is basic stuff.
When Cook fails this badly on defense, it sends the rest of the team into defensive chaos as they try to cover his mistakes. In the end, Duke is going to have to make an adjustment to account for the fact that Cook simply can't play defense. Furthermore, if he's going to be that much of a defensive liability, then Cook better start making flawless decisions on offense.
Andre Dawkins (C)
Dawkins’ 20 helped Duke keep pace with Vermont's layup line. Though he didn't shoot particularly well, Dawkins did have a couple of key threes and did a decent job of driving the lane and drawing fouls.
The problem for Dawkins was that he was repeatedly caught out by backdoor cuts. Many of the Blue Devils were similarly deficient when it came to being alert to that basic offensive move. Even though Dawkins wasn't alone in his transgression, it does harken back to the days when he was a defensive no-show.
Until Vermont exposed Duke's defense, Dawkins had been guarding his man with surprising effort and effectiveness. Though it's unlikely that this one game is a sign of his regression, Dawkins didn't distinguish himself when the Blue Devils really needed a defensive stop.
Tyler Thornton (F)
No one has been more neutered by the rule changes than Thornton. In eleven minutes of play, Thornton had one assist and four fouls. That's indicative of his season thus far. Thornton averages four fouls per game and has only nabbed five steals all year (via ESPN).
Beyond that, Thornton has gotten away from his token corner three. That's really the only shot in his arsenal, and in earlier games, Duke ran a play for him to knock it down. That play either isn't working anymore, or the Blue Devils aren't running it. The bottom line, therefore, is that Thornton is back to being a guy opposing teams don't have to guard at all.
Without any offense to speak of, Thornton must reestablish himself as a defensive stopper. Given how bad Cook is at stopping penetration, there's an opportunity for Thornton to step up as the primary perimeter defender. Yet against Vermont, Thornton looked average at best on defense. Moreover, the typically vocal Thornton was unable to spur the Blue Devils defense into anything remotely competent.
Josh Hairston (D)
Hairston actually did a decent job all things considered. He drew a charge, scored off a nice dish and made both his free-throw attempts. The four points versus Vermont tied his season high. Of course, it isn't offense that Hairston needs to bring to the table for Duke.
Prior to leaving the game after getting knocked on the head, Hairston did a fair job on defense. It wasn't anything to write home about, but compared to the post defense of his teammates, Hairston wasn't a total train wreck. The problem is that Hairston still isn't rebounding.
He had two rebounds versus Vermont, which is above his 1.7 rebounds per game average. As with Thornton, Hairston has a niche role on this team. If he doesn't succeed in filling that specialized role, then you have to wonder why he's on the floor at all.
Semi Ojeleye, Alex Murphy and Matt Jones didn't play enough minutes to merit a grade.
Team GPA: 0.88
Duke is officially on academic probation. Actually it's worse than that. At this point, Duke couldn't even get into one of those for-profit online schools that are just looking to saddle high-risk students with enormous debt.
Even though the Blue Devils won, they should consider that game a loss. A Coach K team hasn't played defense that poorly since the 2011 NCAA tournament loss to Arizona. Even in that game, which Duke lost 77–93, the Wildcats only shot 54 percent.
The main takeaway from this narrow and probably undeserved victory over Vermont is that Duke simply cannot stop penetration. Part of it is the new rules, but much of it is simply the players' lack of effort, understanding and ability.
Far be it from me to tell a four-time national champion how to coach his team, but maybe a zone would be in order. After all, Cook isn't going to magically get better on defense, and even if the switches improve, teams are going to spread the floor and use high screens to get penetration that will force Duke to scramble around on defense.
A zone would solve much of that. But who am I kidding. Duke play zone defense? So instead, get ready for the college version of the "seven seconds or less" era Phoenix Suns.
David Aldridge (+A)
My fellow Bleacher Report Feature Writer for Duke summed up the feelings of Blue Devils Nation perfectly with this tweet:
I'm giving Quinn Cook a rental car to use for his own pleasure. Someone please alert the NCAA.— David Aldridge (@davidmaldridge) November 25, 2013