Duke back to basics with defensive win over Michigan

DURHAM, N.C. — No. 10 Duke (7-2) finally got a win over a ranked team in its third try this season, knocking off No. 22 Michigan (5-3) by a 79-69 score. And it wasn’t as simple as getting the win, although that was nice, too. The Blue Devils grew as a team in the win, which wasn’t always a pretty one. 

1. Duke’s defense might just come around after all

It was jarring to see a Duke team play as badly on defense as it did against Vermont a little over a  week ago, particularly at home. 

That win felt like a loss for the Blue Devils, and ever since, they have been committed to playing better defense. But Duke sophomore Rodney Hood said that the film session after the Vermont game still sticks out in his memory. 

“The coaches walked in, silent. They usually speak. They just walked in, silent. (Krzyzewski) walked in and he just had this look on his face like he was just disgusted,” Hood said. “I can’t repeat what was said in there, but it was tough.”

For junior point guard Quinn Cook, that was part of his motivation. And another was having to hear about how bad Duke’s defense had been all the time. 

“We got tired of people saying that we couldn’t play defense. ESPN was doing specials on us about not playing defense,” Cook said. “Well-deserved, because we weren’t, but we kind of got tired of that.

“We kind of got tired of teams coming in here and scoring on us. … That gets annoying after awhile. So we just kind of wanted to put more effort in there.”

Duke certainly did that, holding Michigan — one of the more talented offensive teams in the country — to 44.6 percent shooting and 30.8 percent in the first half. The numbers were somewhat deceiving, though, particularly the second-half shooting percentage of 56.7 percent. 

Michigan scored 25 points in the final 4:51 after scoring 44 in the first 35:09. And 14 in the final 1:07. The Wolverines ended up shooting 44.6 percent for the game, but were 15-of-42 (35.7 percent) before that last stretch of 10-of-14 shooting (71.4 percent). And Michigan had made just 1-of-9 3’s until making 2-of-4 in the final flurry.

“I think there were more points scored in the last minute and 30 seconds than in any minute and 30 seconds during the game,” Krzyzewski quipped afterwards. “We broke some kind of record, both teams.”

But perhaps no stat was more indicative of Duke’s effort than the fact that Michigan attempted just 13 three-pointers. It seemed like every first-half shot the Wolverines took was a jumper, which means Duke was forcing them into uncomfortable long two-pointers that had little chance of going in. 

And the defense Duke played on Michigan’s best player, two-guard Nik Stauskas, was key. Duke’s defense is often designed to cut the head off of the proverbial snake — take away an opponent’s best option and make him uncomfortable; don’t let him get anything easy. 

Both Tyler Thornton (a senior) and Matt Jones (a freshman) did just that, refusing to let Stauskas past them and barely letting him get the ball at all. He finished 0-of-2 from the floor and 4-of-6 from the foul line, adding four assists to three turnovers in 34 minutes. He was essentially a non-factor. 

“One of the keys for us was trying to limit Stauskas, because Stauskas we felt coming into this game was the best two-guard that we would face so far this season,” Krzyzewski said. “In the halfcourt, there was a big emphasis on trying to keep the ball out of his hands or putting him away from his normal operating area. I thought Tyler and Matt really did an outstanding job with that.”

Duke’s had its ups and downs defensively, and Krzyzewski wouldn’t deny that. Neither would any of his players. But it’s worth remembering that this team is relatively young, and particularly so when it comes to playing with each other. It’s plenty talented, though, and is only going to improve as the year goes along. 

Hood said now that this team has seen what it’s capable of defensively and has seen it work well, it can build on this performance. 

“This is a big confidence boost for our defense, knowing that we can … play really good defense on a great team. It’s just a confidence thing,” Hood said. “We can score the ball. That’s not an issue. We have to have that defensive mindset, and that’s what’s going to get it for us this year.”

2. Speaking of Quinn Cook, when he plays like that, Duke is going to be almost impossible to beat 

Cook has had a roller coaster of a Duke career so far, and at times it seems the ups and downs will never end. But he was as up as you’ll see him against Michigan, a veritable maestro on both ends of the court. He’s not guarding the ball all the time now, but he still has to start Duke’s defense and set the tone. 

He did that early, failing to score but orchestrating his teammates nicely in a sloppy — and offensive-less — first half. Then in the second half, he had all of his season-high 24 points and made 6-of-8 shots (and 10-of-10 free throws). He would finish with nine assists and two turnovers as well. 

“Quinn was magnificent, the whole game. Even though he didn’t score in the first half, he managed the team well,” Krzyzewski said. “We told him to be very aggressive in the second half, and he was.”

Cook’s as emotional a player as you’ll see at Duke, often expressing literally every emotion he feels during the course of a game. Sometimes, it can manifest itself in the wrong way. Cook picked up a technical foul — which he said was the “first of (his) life” — for throwing the ball at a Michigan player after he pushed him out of bounds. 

“He pushed me and I threw the ball at him,” Cook said, adding jokingly. “He was a little too big. I didn’t want to touch him. … I know I’ve got to keep my cool.”

But does he? Or is Duke — and Cook, for that matter — better when he doesn’t? Obviously, no one wants Cook to pick up technical fouls. But maybe it’s OK if Cook just kind of loses his mind, shoving teammates in celebration, slapping the floor and antagonizing opponents with his pesky defense and “chatty” nature. Because it’s just who he is. 

“He needs to be that Quinn Cook we saw tonight every single night,” Hood said. “We expect that from Quinn, being strong and being tough.

“Quinn was Quinn. That’s what we expect from him. Being a leader out there, putting pressure on the defense, finding guys and hitting open shots. He’s one of the better-shooting point guards in the country and he’s one of the better point guards in the country. He’s just got to do that every single game.”

3. Marshall Plumlee, the rest of Duke’s bigs were — no pun intended — huge for the Blue Devils

Marshall Plumlee — yes, there’s a third (and final) Plumlee — saw just six minutes of action, but it felt like more. He hasn’t played a lot since he got to campus last year. As a freshman in 2013, he broke his foot not long before the season began, which hindered his development.

There are quite a few players on this year’s Duke team still trying to carve out a role for themselves, and Plumlee is one of them. He takes nothing for granted as far as getting minutes — which makes sense, since he had seen a total of 22 minutes of action in five of Duke’s first eight games — but he knows he has to bring energy when he is in the game. 

“I guess the safest thing for me to do is to prepare for every game like I’m going to get that opportunity,” Plumlee said. “Today my name was called and it just felt great to get in there and to contribute. When your teammates like Josh (Hairston) and Amile (Jefferson) and Jabari (Parker) set such a great example, it’s really easy to come in and follow their lead.”

They might have set an example, but Plumlee was the one who set the tone. He came into the game about five minutes into the first half after Hairston picked up his second foul, and he got two rebounds in 17 seconds, both of which were tough boards. 

After the offensive rebound (which Duke turned into two second-chance points), Hood gave him a celebratory shove that nearly knocked the 7-footer into press row. 

“I was excited for him,” Hood said. “I thought he was going to be nervous. He just threw himself into it. He got a rebound. He got an offensive rebound which I didn’t think he was going to get. I’m just happy for him.

“And we need Marshall. The size that he has, we need that. … Sometimes, you can see him a little down but for him to have that performance he had tonight, man, it’s just unbelievable.”

Plumlee admitted that there are some nerves when he gets into the game. He still feels like he has so much to prove after last season, now that he’s finally healthy. And when he makes a big play and his face narrows into a gritted-teeth glare of intensity, it sometimes looks like he’s going to explode out of his skin. 

“I just have to tell myself to calm down, because playing in front of the Cameron Crazies, it’s unreal,” Plumlee said. “I need to tell myself to calm down.”

Amile Jefferson hadn’t been very effective for Duke recently either, but he stepped up with six points and six rebounds in 17 minutes. Hairston was inserted into the starting lineup after the Vermont debacle, and he doesn’t show up much on the stat sheet, but does in the ways Coach K counts — hustle, deflections, taking charges, things like that. 

All of them combined to set the tone for Duke. 

“I thought all three of those big kids played very selfless — Josh, Amile and Marshall. They played with energy when they got into the game,” Krzyzewski said. 

“They weren’t trying to figure out how to score — they figured out how they were going to try to help.”