Over the extended Thanksgiving weekend, Duke beat three defensive-minded teams in three days to win the dumb-sounding Battle4Atlantis tournament, held in a converted ballroom of a Bahamas’ resort. Minnesota fell first and looked kind of terrible, especially on offense. Then came Virginia Commonwealth University, who couldn’t shoot either.
But by Saturday night, when Duke beat Louisville, another team that seemed unable to hit the broadside of a ballroom except for layups and putbacks, the story wasn’t about opponents’ poor shooting, missed free throws, or early season jitters and kinks. It was about Duke's ability to cause those misfortunes, and the early signs of this team’s true transformation since its ignominious loss to Lehigh in March, as follows:
• Defense. Good lord, this team plays better defense than last year. Were Austin Rivers and Miles Plumlee really that bad? (Maybe.) They’re gone now, and those that remain, including the three seniors, have taken a big stride forward towards Coach K’s platonic ideal of playing defense: very aggressive while totally in control.
It’s the hardest thing to learn. It’s why each year Duke fans see the new freshmen show up and start fouling the crap out of everyone. Sure, K gets them amped up immediately about defense, but it takes them time to learn how to balance when to stick to guys like glue, when to give them space, and most importantly, how to switch between glue and space and back again. How much time?
Well, let’s put it this way: in their freshman years, both Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee hacked away at a rate of over 6 fouls/40 minutes of play; now Mason’s at 3.3 fouls/40 minutes and Kelly’s close behind. And you could see it, in play after play in Atlantis, with the two big men picking times to pressure and push and then suddenly backing up to let their guys go flying by them like Charlie Brown kicking that football. Taking Duke guards one-on-one is still the best way to score, but Curry and Cook both have gotten better, too, and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon showed up at Duke with one of the best looking defensive stances of any recruit for a long time; he may well be the rare freshman that is up to the task of working K’s system without fouling out immediately.
• ISTJ. This may be the most introverted team that Duke has had for a long time. In fact, if you’ll allow an indulgent pop-psychological moment to imagine the team taking a collective Myers-Briggs test, I’m pretty sure they’d be a collective ISTJ: the psychological type characterized as introverted, sensing, thinking and judging. Gone is the flamboyance of Nolan Smith, the crowd-seeking hunger of Austin Rivers, the goofy dreamer of a Kyle Singler, the fierce heart of Lance Thomas. This is a quiet and serious team, associated with the kinds of classic ISTJ qualities detailed in the sports psychology books: “stable, conservative, dependable, reserved, logical, fastidious, systematic, painstaking, thorough, dutiful, fine motor skilled.” It’s not a super common profile for athletes (how’s this for a weird trio of examples: Evander Holyfield, Jack Nicklaus, and Michael Cooper?). They’re cool under pressure. They may seem a little distant. But their joy comes in execution, and you could see that systematic and fastidious joy in the face of Seth Curry after the drawn-up play before halftime that gave him an open shot—and Duke an 8-point lead—off the Josh Hairston screen and hand off. It’s the joy of Mason Plumlee practicing himself into nailing the free throws he used to miss; Quinn Cook’s new footwork on defense; Ryan Kelly’s learned patience in blocking Kevin Ware’s drive in the final minutes of the Louisville game.
Looks or is? For Cook and for Duke, that’s what we’re going to find out.