Quinn Cook's presence allows Duke to shine

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It's easy to watch Duke play and marvel at how center Jahlil Okafor can maneuver in the paint, how forward Justise Winslow can seemingly do a little bit of everything and even how clutch guard Tyus Jones can be making a shot or a key pass that leads to a basket when the Blue Devils need him most.

That's why it's been easy to overlook senior guard Quinn Cook.

To a large extent, that's the state of college basketball nowadays. The shiny, new freshmen merit our attention, and that somehow devalues players who stick around a few years.

"That's how my life is; I've always been overlooked," Cook said. "I've always been too small, not athletic enough, so I'm used to it. Our four freshmen are our most talented players. I know Coach K had confidence in me, so I wasn't worried about anyone else outside."

It might come as a surprise to most observers, but Cook actually tied Okafor as the Blue Devils' leading scorer with 16.8 points per game in ACC play.

That's just his scoring. His impact and influence on the team go well beyond the scoreboard.

"It's hard for me to quantify just how much his leadership has meant. It is the key factor," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He makes it OK for all those guys to be who they are."

Cook also makes it OK to believe Duke can live up to being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, a position the Blue Devils all but wrapped up after closing out the regular season with an 84-77 win over North Carolina.

Flashy freshmen are nice, but even Kentucky, which has rolled in No. 1 recruiting classes of uber-freshmen under John Calipari, won its lone recent national title in 2012 because it had veteran leadership to supplement its talented youth.

That's what Cook brings and why he can't be underestimated.

"He's just been the prototype leader, the prototype captain," Jones said. "Anything and everything you would want your captain to do, he's done. He's the rock of this team. He really is."

Not many people could have envisioned Cook being in this role last season, when he was benched in favor of Rasheed Sulaimon at point guard. Cook was even once confronted on the bench by then-assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski for throwing a cup of water out of frustration.

That's not who he is this season.

"Quinn is an amazing leader both emotionally and the way he plays for us," junior forward Amile Jefferson said. "… when he's doing well, he inspires everyone."

He's doing it on the defensive end as well. Earlier this season, Miami and NC State exposed Duke's ability to contain the ball off the dribble, and the Blue Devils resorted to using a zone defense -- virtually unheard of during Krzyzewski's tenure. But they haven't had to use the zone in awhile. The reason? Cook's defense improved.

In the first meeting with the Tar Heels, Cook held Marcus Paige to just six points. In the rematch with Notre Dame, he stopped Jerian Grant from exploiting Duke on pick-and-rolls.

Cook has improved in every shooting category this season from his career averages. He leads the team in 3-point field goal percentage and leads the conference in 3-pointers per game. Cook doesn't have as many assists this season because Jones took over the role of point guard. But that speaks to him being OK with Krzyzewski changing his role before his senior season.

"Really, it started with his acceptance of how we were going to use him with Tyus coming in," Krzyzewski said. "What a great example … in addition to that he's been an all-conference player. Quinn's been a great player this year, not just a great leader."

It was Cook whose 13 points in the first half against Carolina kept the Blue Devils -- who, minus his contribution, shot 28 percent -- from facing a huge deficit. In the second half with Winslow in foul trouble, Jones suffering back spasms and Okafor on the bench, Cook guided a seldom-used lineup to help Duke take the lead for good.

And when the Blue Devils embark on the postseason with so many newcomers who don't know how to value the intensity of every possession, it will be Cook who helps them navigate the tournament waters, too.

"Being in the Elite Eight, losing in the first round, I think I've been through every college basketball aspect except for the Final Four," Cook said. "Guys look to me and, being the only senior, I just want to leave my mark."

Looks like he's already left one.