Duke’s Atlantis win over Cards seems ages ago

Mar. 30, 2013 @ 06:40 PM

Even in an NCAA Tournament of upsets, the blue bloods of college basketball are most of the last teams standing yet again. In the Midwest Region on Sunday, No. 2-seed Duke (30-5) and No. 1 Louisville (32-5) will meet for the right to go to the Final Four, perhaps a round or two earlier than a game like this should be played.

“You’ve got two programs that are accustomed to people playing their best against you all the time,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said on Saturday. “Now, we’ve got a chance to play our best against one another. ... Elite Eight games are huge anyway, but this one, I think it’s like a national championship game.”

These two teams played one of the best early-season games when Duke beat Louisville 76-71 to win the Battle 4 Atlantis title in the Bahamas on Nov. 24. In the first matchup, all five Duke starters scored at least 14 points.

Like he did on Friday night against Michigan State, backup point guard Tyler Thornton saw crucial minutes in the November meeting and had three points, three assists and just one turnover. The Louisville pressure often meant he and starting point guard Quinn Cook played at the same time.

The big difference, though, is that Thornton and Cook weren’t playing at the same time on Friday night. Cook finished with no points on 0-of-5 shooting and had two assists to three turnovers. He was visibly frustrated and he played 21 minutes, his second-fewest this season.

It worked for a game, but it likely won’t work for 40 minutes, or even extended stretches, against Louisville’s pressure. Cook knows that. Cook said that he watched tape with assistant coach Jeff Capel last night before he went to bed and one thing stuck out.

“Just me not being poised. I’ve been poised all year and stuff like that can happen, especially against a good team tomorrow. I’ll take it and learn from it and move on,” Cook said on Saturday.

“I was so upset at me making turnovers and (Michigan State point guard Keith) Appling scoring, I think I faded away from being a leader,” Cook said.

In the Battle 4 Atlantis, Cook was at his best with 15 points on 4-of-8 shooting. He had six of Duke’s final eight points in the last 1:14 to clinch the win over Louisville. He’s been clutch for Duke most of the year, hitting big shots late in games. Duke is going to need that Cook to show up again, particularly as Louisville’s guards are some of the nation’s best.

Russ Smith in particular has been brilliant all season (18.8 points per game) and he’s gone to even another level in the NCAA Tournament, where he’s averaged 27 points on 55.3 percent shooting (40 percent from three-point range). Point guard Peyton Siva has averaged 5.8 assists. Both are athletic enough to get into the lane, and they did in the November game against Duke, combining for 36 points.

Both teams are a lot different now. Louisville played the November meeting without starting center Gorgui Dieng, who missed seven games earlier this year with a broken wrist. Dieng made First Team All-Big East and averages 10 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.

Louisville’s bench has improved quite a bit since November. Even Louisville’s full-court press has improved since then.

Forward Chane Behanan said even though the press is designed to force turnovers, that’s not the only objective. It should tire out opponents to the point where they miss shots. Duke turned it over 14 times in the first meeting against Louisville but certainly had the legs to make shots late in the game.

“It was the beginning of the season, but I think (Duke) handled it pretty well. We still didn’t know much about our press then, and that was all the way back in November,” Behanan said. “I think we’ve gotten better. We’ve caught on to the defense more.”

And of course, Duke lost forward Ryan Kelly to an injury and is still reincorporating him into the lineup. Seth Curry has been learning to play through injury. He was a non-factor against Louisville in November, but he scored a team-high 29 in the Michigan St. win and was virtually unguardable.

A win would give Duke its first Final Four since 2010, when it won the national title, and just its second Final Four appearance since 2004. Considering what’s on the line, this is a game that’s going to come down to desire and intangibles between two evenly-matched opponents.

“I think when we play with emotion and all-out fight, I think that’s when we’re at our best,” Cook said. “I know (Louisville doesn’t) want to go home, so I know those guys are going to play with emotion as well. The tougher team is going to win.”