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A Point Guard Platoon?

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During the Duke-Western Michigan game at Cameron, a sharp-eyed reporter (not me) noticed something unusual about the Blue Devils' bench alignment.

Assistant coach Jeff Capel was not sitting to Coach K's right with assistants Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski. Instead, he was halfway down the bench, positioned with players to his left and right.

The reporter saw the same thing at the Penn game. Afterwards, he asked Coach K about the change in seating arrangements.

"We're taking a look at our chemistry," Krzyzewski explained. "That was one of the things we evaluated over the holidays: How do we sit on the bench? What are we doing when they come off the court? Who's talking to the guys? Where are they sitting? That type of thing. We did a lot of evaluations."

Coach Krzyzewski explained that during his tenure, he and his staff have used the break between the pre-exam period and the end of the year to evaluate and adjust the team.

"Christmas is a good thing for a variety of things," he said. "There are three things we try to do. I hope our conference never has conference games during the holidays. We've had the long breaks for three reasons. One is academics. For two weeks, we have a really tough academic time. A second thing - I want our kids home for Christmas. You shouldn't be practicing on Christmas Day. I don't think a college basketball player should do that. We're not professionals. We're not the Rockettes, the Rangers or the Giants.

"The third thing for us is that it gives us a chance to evaluate what we've done and make some changes as we go forward. We evaluate everything … that's what you should do. You can get ingrained to a certain procedure and be a slave to that procedure and it may not be the right thing for this group."

The shift of Coach Capel down the bench is a minor adjustment that Coach K hopes will provide better and more immediate instruction for a developing team. It's not the only change he made during the holiday … and not nearly the most important.

The biggest change is at the point, where Coach K has decided - at least temporarily - to use a two-player platoon at the point guard position, shuttling sophomore Tyler Thornton and freshman Quinn Cook at the vital position.

Remember, Duke started the season with junior Seth Curry slated to handle the point guard duties. He got most of the minutes there during the team's China/Dubai tour last summer and in preseason. He started at the point in Duke's first eight games as Thornton averaged 17 minutes a game in relief and Cook played a miniscule eight minutes a game off the bench.

But Game 8 was Duke's offensive and defensive meltdown against Ohio State. Curry, who was bothered by a sore ankle, played 26 minutes and managed just seven points, no assists and three turnovers.

When Duke returned to action on Dec. 7, Curry was at the wing and Thornton was at the point. Cook got 16 and 18 minutes off the bench in blowouts against Colorado State and UNC Greensboro, but he played just four minutes in a more competitive win over Washington.

That was the situation when Duke took its Christmas break and Coach K and his staff made their evaluations and decided to give Cook a bigger role.

"We had a chance to make that change just before Christmas holidays for Tyler," Coach K said. "We played [three] games that way. Then over the Christmas holidays, we evaluated and said, 'Quinn physically is better able to do that now.'

"Since the start of the season, he's gotten stronger. His knees are better. He's in better shape. He's had more reps. We wanted to take a look at alternating them in and keeping a fresh guy there. We can push the ball and pressure the ball."

Cook has had a lot of admirers among the Duke fan base, but they sometimes overlook a couple of issues.

One is his health. He's had surgery on both knees.

"Remember, we shut him down," Krzyzewski pointed out. "He had a serious injury. So he never played in China and Dubai. He never practiced. He really didn't start practicing until October, so he didn't have a preseason conditioning program. So it's really a matter of him getting stronger and getting in better health. He's a good player. He's getting an opportunity and he's really making the most of it."

In a way, Cook's physical issues link him to former Duke star Chris Carrawell. When Carrawell was a prep junior, he was touted as one of the top 10 prospects in his class - a potential superstar. But in the summer before his senior year, he suffered a shoulder injury that severely impacted his game. Trying to compensate, he hurt his other shoulder. Before long, his stock dropped and he was barely a top 50 prospect.

Carrawell got his shoulders fixed at Duke and finished as a first-team All-American and the ACC player of the year.

Cook was also celebrated as a prep junior. Playing in a city with such highly touted guards as Kendall Marshall, Tyler Thornton and at one time Josh Shelby, there were those who thought the DeMatha junior was the best prospect of the lot. Several services ranked him as the best point guard in his class.

But that spring, Cook suffered a knee injury. He underwent surgery and missed most of the summer. He returned to play as a senior (transferring to Oak Hill) and while he played well, his stock dropped (all the way down to No. 31 on the RSCI, which averages recruiting rankings).

When Cook arrived at Duke this summer, the staff watched him trying to play on sore knees and shut him down.

"It definitely hurt, sitting out," Cook said. "I missed two months [after surgery in the spring of 2010]. Last year, my senior year, I played all season with it, then missed five more months in the offseason."

Cook said his knees still get sore at times, but he believes that he's regained the quickness that made him such an extraordinary prospect as a junior. The enforced layoff hurt his game going into the season, but it also helped him in one way.

"I think I came back stronger," he said. "I think I grew up mentally, just my basketball IQ. I learned the game."

The second issue that has limited Cook's minutes in the early going is his defense. He understands that, even if some of his admirers don't.

"That's the biggest thing," he said. "My defense was so poor when I got here. I've just been working every day to get it better. It's progressing day-by-day."

What's the biggest issue that he needed to address?

"Just effort," he said. "I could always play defense, but sometimes in high school I tried to save myself for offense. But here, we've got a lot of bodies. I can give four minutes and Tyler comes in and gives four minutes - we're like a two-headed monster."

That two-headed monster worked to perfection in post-Christmas victories over Western Michigan and Penn. Thornton started both games and played 17 minutes in each, scoring 17 points (on 5-of-5 3-point shooting) and passing our four assists with two turnovers. Cook averaged 22.5 minutes, scoring 22 points and passing out an extraordinary 17 assists with no turnovers.

"Our guard play at the point was outstanding," Krzyzewski said after the Western Michigan win. "Quinn's stat line, to get eight assists and no turnovers and his ball pressure was really good. Tyler hit 4-for-4 on 3s. Again, they were open shots and he knocked them down."

Thornton's shooting has been remarkable - he's hit 10 of 19 3-pointers this season, including his last six in a row. He's also done it in the clutch, hitting two 3-pointers late to beat Kansas in Maui.

"I call him Ray Allen," Cook said of his platoon partner. "He doesn't think he can shoot. I tell him he's one of the best shooters. He's getting confidence in that 3-ball."

That didn't come after the Kansas game?

"He thinks it was luck," Cook said. "I told him he's one of the best shooters we have."

And Cook is probably Duke's best playmaker. So far he's averaging one assist every 5.2 minutes - by far the best rate on the team (and better than Chris Duhon or Tommy Amaker recorded as freshmen; the same as Jason Williams; only Hurley at one assist every 4.4 minutes was better as a freshman). His 29/6 assist/turnover ratio (almost five-to-one) is also the best on the team and far better than any of his freshmen predecessors.

"The guys like playing with Quinn because he passes," Krzyzewski said after the Penn game. "He sees you in places that other people have a hard time seeing you. He's had 17 assists and no turnovers in the last two games. I don't care who you are playing against - and he was playing against a really good guard - that's impressive, very impressive."

Krzyzewski is hoping his two point guards can each play to their strengths.

"Quinn's playing great. Tyler's playing well too. Quinn is a natural point guard. Tyler can play both. Tyler is just a really good leader. He should not be a guy trying to make Quinn's plays. We should run more set offense [with Thornton]. Although his pass to Mason at the end of the half [against Penn] was pretty good play. He's not any kind of flamboyant playmaker. Just easy passes, get us into stuff and make sure we're set and use his leadership. We're more of a set-oriented team when he's in. We're a little more open when Quinn's in. So we give a little different looks."

It's interesting that Coach K would call Cook "a natural point guard."

Now, you can argue semantics, but my take is that Duke has not had a "natural point guard" at the controls since Chris Duhon finished his career against UConn in the 2004 national semifinals … except for the eight games to start the 2010-11 season when Kyrie Irving gave Duke the best point guard play in the nation.

For most of the time over the last seven years, Duke has been led by a combo guard - think Jon Scheyer leading the 2010 Devils to the national title. You might want to list Sean Dockery or Greg Paulus as point guards, but even if they were, neither was an exceptional playmaker (both had other strengths).

Whether Cook becomes a great player or not, there's no debate that he's a true point guard.

A reporter (again, not me) asked Krzyzewski if that makes a difference?

"It is a different take than we've had over the last three years," he said, quickly adding, "although we've had three 30-won seasons in a row. I think what you have to do is adjust to your personnel. We've trying to learn about our personnel."

That process is still going on. The Cook-Thornton combo was far less effective at Temple than it had been in the Western Michigan and Penn games. The duo combined for just nine points, two assists (both by Cook) and three turnovers. The perimeter defense was good on Temple playmaker Juan Fernandez (1-of-4 from the game, seven turnovers), but guard Khalif Wyatt torched the Devils for 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

"We're very much a developing team," Krzyzewski warned before the Temple game. "A lot of guys trying to figure out who they are. We have to give them an opportunity to that."

Cook, healthy at last and learning to play defense at Duke's level, is starting to get that opportunity.

"I'm just playing basketball," he said. "I've got my confidence. I'm just going to give it all for my time out there, whether its two minutes, 10 minutes or 20 minutes - I'm going all out."

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