Duke's Quinn Cook tries to make something happen against Syracuse.
Much has been made of Duke basketball's lack of low-post muscle. To be sure, Syracuse freely exploited that condition on Saturday during its epic 91-89 overtime win over the Blue Devils.
Duke's offense, however, displayed its own nagging condition as the evening wore on.
The Blue Devils were able to stay on the Orange's heels thanks to hot shooting, working the ball around the perimeter for 15 three-point baskets. All of those shots were urgently needed to force Syracuse's defense out of its comfort zone—pun completely intended.
Many of the Blue Devils' top offensive weapons were hitting their shots against the Orange, but Duke's second-most prolific shooter was the one guy who should know when to find others: point guard Quinn Cook.
In what's been a recurring theme in Duke's losses this season, Cook hoisted more shots against Syracuse than any player not named Jabari Parker. His sickly 2-of-12 shooting night included a lot of looks that would have been better taken by others.
Cook's overall point guard play has been reasonably solid, but his shot selection should have Blue Devils fans scratching their heads, if not asking for a change outright.
All About the Shot?
A point guard should not be assessed by his shooting alone, to be fair. If that were the case, Louisville icon Peyton Siva would have struggled to become a starter.
It becomes part of the conversation, though, when the team suffers a close loss and the floor general has hoisted a substantial number of shots. Observe the comparison between Cook's last season-plus and Siva's final two years at Louisville:
While each player's demeanor differed only slightly between wins and losses, Siva always erred toward the side of getting teammates involved in the action. Cook has been an aggressive shooter night in and night out since becoming a starter, but that tendency stands out more in losses, particularly close ones.
That goes double for ones like the Syracuse game, which saw him miss all seven of his shots in the second half and overtime.
Win or lose, Cook is in a slump. Dating back six games, beginning with Duke's home victory over Virginia, the junior has shot a mere 21-of-55 (38.2 percent) from the floor and 8-of-29 (27.6 percent) from deep. Cook has been coping with an ankle injury suffered against Florida State, but that doesn't explain his 30 percent shooting in the previous four games.
The combo guard in Cook rears up when he's struggling, carrying the shooter's mentality of chucking one's way out of a funk.
None of this is to indicate that Cook is the only struggling Blue Devil, but it's not a large club. Check out the effective field-goal percentages of Duke's top seven scorers in ACC play:
Parker has seen some hits to his minutes, particularly during crunch time of the loss to Notre Dame, but those have been largely caused by his defense. Brought in to be the team's primary scoring threat, head coach Mike Krzyzewski will usually let his star freshman fight through his offensive slumps.
Most coaches, though, won't abide a lot of rough shooting nights from the point guard. It's a shame, because aside from Cook's shot selection, he hasn't been a terrible drain on the Blue Devils offense. He's put up 38 assists in ACC play against only 14 turnovers, a ratio of 2.7-to-1.
Against Syracuse, Cook dropped five dimes with no turnovers against a pair of guards (Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney) who ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the ACC in steals entering the game.
During the first half on Saturday, however, Coach K experimented with another option at the point: sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon.
In a true combo-guard performance, Sulaimon actually led the Blue Devils with six assists while committing only one turnover and draining four three-pointers; that includes a shot that will one day rank among the most iconic in Duke history.
Going into the Syracuse game, Sulaimon was 2-of-15 shooting in his previous two games, but he attacked the basket against Florida State to draw eight free throws. He made them all.
Moving forward, the 6'4" Sulaimon could present an intriguing option for Coach K at the point. His superior length could aid the defense against smaller guards like Wake Forest's Codi Miller-McIntyre, North Carolina's Nate Britt and Tyler Ennis in the Syracuse rematch.
Ennis was regularly able to get past Cook to drop off assists or draw fouls in the lane, and he's not the first. Against Sulaimon, Ennis wasn't quite as aggressive. That led to the Orange scoring only two points during that early three-minute span with Cook on the sideline.
Status Quo or Gotta Go?
Who would you give more minutes to?
Krzyzewski might not go so far as to bench Cook in upcoming games, but it may be very likely that he reconsiders the balance of minutes.
Sulaimon has rebounded extremely well from his benching early in the season. He's nearly even with Cook in scoring during conference action despite playing nearly eight fewer minutes per game.
Next season, Duke's backcourt logjam only intensifies with the addition of 5-star point guard prospect Tyus Jones of Apple Valley, Minn. A true pass-first playmaker, Jones is expected to play immediately next to fellow blue-chipper and good friend Jahlil Okafor of Chicago.
The optimist can hope that next year's Duke team can roll with a backcourt arrangement similar to Florida's this season. The Gators have ably juggled minutes between McDonald's All-American freshman Kasey Hill and senior Scottie Wilbekin, sometimes playing them together.
The difference is that Wilbekin is one of the top perimeter defenders in the SEC, if not America. That's not a statement that applies to Cook at this time.
The pessimist may be interested in seeing Cook's minutes take a hit now to prepare him for sharing time with Jones. The incoming freshman has won over scouts with his tendency to make the right play without pushing too hard.
From Jones' ESPN scouting report (subscription required):
Jones is smooth and plays with no wasted motion. He makes the right play at the right time, be it a pass, a steal, a rebound or a basket. From the neck up, there's no one better in the class of 2014 with the ability to think, play and perform than Jones. He understands how to win and what it takes to win.
Does this sound like a player who's coming to ride the bench?
Whether Coach K sticks with Cook and lets him ride out the shooting woes or allocates more time on the ball to Sulaimon, the Blue Devils point guard play will be pivotal.
The offense's efficiency will determine how far Duke ultimately goes in March. There may be no player more important to that efficiency than Quinn Cook. His ability to rein in his shot selection will determine the direction of not only the team's season, but also his own career.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.