From the stands: Duke v. Michigan St

The Blue Devils answered some questions in their first true test of the season.

The Blue Devils got a big step up in competition on Tuesday night against Michigan State. And though the Spartans challenged Duke at times, the Blue Devils never seemed flinch. At least that’s how we saw it from the stands…

RESPONDING TO THE CHALLENGE

The Blue Devils were pushed at times by Michigan State as the scrappy Spartans refused to back down, preferring instead to scrap, claw, and and push their way back each time Duke built a lead.

After two huge victories to start the season, it was interesting to see the Blue Devils in a situation where things could fall apart quickly. After pushing the lead to as many as 10 in the first half, Michigan State fought back to within three before Duke responded and pushed the lead back to seven, In the second half Michigan State pulled back to within three after Jahlil Okafor picked up his fourth foul…but Duke responded. This time with a knockout blow.

Three players in particular stepped up - and each in their own way. In the first half with the Spartans seemingly building momentum after cutting it to three, Justise Winslow knocked down a three pointer, forced a turnover on the next possession, and then drew a foul on the next possession before hitting two free throw. Within a minute of game time, Winslow had turned a three margin into an eight point cushion.

Similarly, in the second half with Okafor on the bench, Tyus Jones because to find his range. The freshman point guard lived up to his pre-Duke billing and scouting report - showing he doesn’t need to score as a first or second option, but when his team needs buckets, he’ll find them in about as cold a manner as possible.

Against the Spartans it came with Michigan State again cutting into a Duke lead, pulling to within 51-48 with just under eight minutes remaining. From there Jones would convert a four point play, dish out two assists, and then hit another three off a screen in helping Duke to a 13-3 spurt that ultimately decided the game.

As for Cook, the senior’s baskets weren’t as dramatic as his freshman teammates, but they were just as important, not to mention constant. The senior showcased a steady hand and is establishing himself as the team’s leader - a fitting transformation for a player who was named as captain before the year began. It’s also exactly what the player himself expected after telling the media he’d “grown up” over the last year.

That maturity level was on display and Cook remained in complete control throughout the game. He played 36 minutes, scored 19 points (7-of-12 shooting), and recorded a perfect 6-to-0 assist to turnover ratio.

All told, while the media will rightly rave over Okafor’s dominance inside, on Tuesday the Blue Devils proved that this year’s group has several players who are capable of finding big baskets. Perhaps more important was the manner in which those baskets were obtained. Aside from a few poor shot attempts, Duke never seemed rushed or panicked as Michigan State continued to battle back. Just when it seemed as though the Spartans were ready to seize the momentum, Winslow or Jones responded with huge sequences. Cook never lost his composure and seemed to orchestrate it all and allowed the Blue Devils to grab as mature a victory as you could expected for November.

POINT GUARD ANSWERS

Throughout the summer and into the preseason one of the major questions for Duke centered around the point guard position. How would Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook co-exist? Would the senior be able to handle moving off the ball in favor of the more heralded freshman? And, if they played together, how would it actually work?

So far, and it’s still very early, the answers seem fairly positive.

Tuesday night the duo combined for 36 points on 11-of-17 shooting overall and 5-of-7 from the perimeter. Jones and Cook were also perfect from the free throw line hitting all of their nine attempts and posted a combined 10-to-0 assist to turnover ratio.

Perhaps the most telling stat of the game was the minutes logged by both. Duke didn’t play a meaningful second without at least one player on the court. Both players logged season highs in minutes, and both hit big shots down the stretch culminating with Jones taking over the game for four straight minutes late in the second half.

“We all had to come together collectively,” Jones said. “We stayed calm and ran our offense. I was able to take what the defense gave me.”

For his part, their head coach was impressed and it seems as though we’ll continue to see Duke going with the two lead guards at once.

“I really thought the play of Quinn, his leadership, throughout the game was big for us,” Krzyzewski said. “Quinn’s presence was really, really big for us. He and Tyus have really developed a great relationship and then Tyus took off in the second half.”

OKAFOR IS EFFICIENT, BUT LEARNING

For the season the Duke center is shooting 83.3 percent from the field and averaging 17.7 points per game. He’s doing it while playing just 26.7 minutes per night. Perhaps the only knock on his early season numbers has been his free throw shooting (currently just 3-of-7).

The Spartans got a first hand account of the big man’s dominance as he hit 8-of-10 shots, while playing a season high 30 minutes. Michigan State, like the first two season opponents, didn’t have enough size to truly challenge Okafor, but they certainly had enough athletes and battle worn Big 10 athletes to provide more resistance than either Presbyterian or Fairfield. And still, Okafor was too good.

"I've been watching him since the eighth grade," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "He had three or four baskets in a row early and only had three or four or five after that. I wasn't disappointed in that; I was just impressed with him."

The key to slowing him down after the initial burst was playing the Duke center one on one and pushing him away from the basket. Often he’d received the ball at a poor angle or so far away from the basket that he’d end up facing up his defender, forcing a pass or kick back out. It’s something Krzyzewski pointed out in the post game.

“This was like a Final Four game for the freshmen,” said the Duke coach. “I thought they got tired. With Jah, we’re still learning how to play with him, and I thought he did well tonight. He’s learning, and he needs to re-post more than he did.”

Learning and adapting to the college game is going to be a continual theme in the coming weeks as Krzyzewski continues to integrate his highly rated freshman class into the rotation, and the little things become more and more important.

"These guys, especially the young guys, sometimes they stop after a shot is taken. And they’re ready to go on to the next play, but the play is still happening with that loose ball. Our concentration just has to carry over a little bit more.”

NOTEBOOK

- After playing 10 players all more than 10 minutes per game through the first two contests, the rotation shortened against the Spartans. Duke played eight players nine minutes or more with freshman Grayson Allen and sophomore Semi Ojeleye getting just three minutes combined.

- Krzyzewski mentioned that Rasheed Sulaimon has been under the weather over the last few days, but played through it. The junior managed just 12 minutes while Matt Jones filled in for 22 minutes.

- Duke continued to share the ball on offense, recording 15 assists on 27 made field goals. The ball movement and focus on the interior first allowed the Blue Devils to shoot 54 percent on the evening and 7-of-14 from the perimeter.

- Free throws have improved dramatically for for a number of players from a season ago. And, as a team, Duke shot 20-of-26 from the charity stripe on the evening (76.9%). Cook and Jones went 9-of-9 combined.

- Michigan State seemed to track down most of the loose balls on both ends of the floor. The Spartans out-rebounded Duke by 10 and recorded an 11-3 advantage in second chance points, which was the only way they were able to remain within striking distance.

- Defensively Duke forced 13 turnovers and converted that into 24 points while surrendering just four points off eight Blue Devil mistakes.


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