Duke Continues To Search For An Answer At Point Guard

Posted by rtmsf on December 8th, 2011

Will Rothschild is an RTC correspondent and can be found on Twitter @warothschild. He filed this report from the Duke-Colorado State game Wednesday night in Durham.

After eight games, the Seth Curry Point Guard Experiment is over at Duke.

While running through a trio of good-but-flawed teams that lacked both the defensive physicality and the experience to expose their flaws at the Maui Invitational, that’s exactly what happened to the Blue Devils in their 22-point beating at Ohio State last week. And among the most glaring truths that game revealed was just how far Curry has to go in his development as a point guard.

There is a long tradition of combo guards running the show at Duke under Coach K. From Johnny Dawkins to Jeff Capel to Daniel Ewing to Scheyer to Nolan Smith, Krzyzewski has never hesitated to rely on players who weren’t natural points to initiate the offense. While Roy Williams says he prefers to have three “true” point guards on the roster at all times and was known at Kansas to play two at the same time, Coach K has gotten it done at times with none.

Duke Is Still Searching For A Point Guard

So it wasn’t particularly surprising in November to see Duke’s starting five include three natural shooting guards – Curry, Austin Rivers and Andre’ Dawkins – and two forwards – Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee – while highly recruited true point guards Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook watched from the bench.

“But,” Kryzewski said after Wednesday night’s defeat of Colorado State, “getting beat by (22) points will lead to a lot of things.” It appears the point guard rotation may be one of those things. Though he certainly wasn’t the only Blue Devil who struggled against the Buckeyes – Dawkins was scoreless in 19 minutes – Curry’s performance was troubling. He made just one of six three-point attempts with no assists and three turnovers. So there was Thornton, a sophomore who played just 9.9 minutes per game last year after picking Duke over Georgetown and Villanova among others, trotting out for his first career start Wednesday night, a move that sent Dawkins to the bench.

In an 87-64 victory, Thornton proceeded to tie his career-high with 28 minutes and four assists. He did not commit a turnover. Meanwhile, Cook, after playing just 13 total minutes in the three games in Maui, followed up a promising 14-minute appearance in Columbus with 16 more minutes against Colorado State, finishing with a pair of assists and, like Thornton, zero turnovers. More importantly, the Duke offense looked more cohesive as everyone seemed to pick up on Thornton and Cook’s passing mentality. Duke finished with 21 assists on 31 made field goals, and even Curry looked more comfortable as a distributor, setting a career-high with eight assists even as his shooting struggles continued (he’s now made just two of his last 11 3-point attempts). Clearly, some of this may attributable to the level of the opponent, but it was a remarkable change for the Blue Devils.

“Seth had more [assists] playing off the ball than he ever has (playing the point),” Krzyzewski noted. “I thought in general we shared the ball really well.” And after featuring three guards more suited to play off the ball through the first seven games, Duke actually played Thornton and Cook together for several stretches against the Rams.

“That took me back to my high school days,” said the freshman Cook of his pairing with Thornton in the backcourt. “I’ve been playing with Tyler since I was a little kid. We played on the same AAU team for years. He was always kind of like my big brother. And then we went against each other on our high school teams, and we would go at each other hard. It’s nice to back out there together now.” To be sure, it’s hard to imagine Cook-Thornton will become anything more than a mid-game change-up or a situational combination when Coach K wants to close out a game with extra ball handlers. But it’s the willingness to experiment that is noteworthy.

Indeed, it’s clear Coach K is using this time of year exactly as you would hope: experimenting with roles, lineups, and rotations in an effort to forge a team that by March will be Final Four-worthy. With his track record, betting against Krzyzewski’s ability to unlock the right combination again this season is done at your own peril.

“We’re just looking at trying to get better,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re going to continue to do things to try to make our team better.” Already, the Blue Devils say they’ve learned a lot about themselves.

“We found out we’re not as tough as we thought we were,” Thornton said of the Ohio State loss. “Our focus since then in practice has been on being tougher, being more aggressive, physical. We’ve had some really tough practices and we’d been using a lot of different combinations, but we didn’t really know what Coach was going to decide until tonight. I met with him and he told me just to be myself and keep doing what I’ve been doing. Be a leader out there, be smart, find open teammates. I don’t have to be a hero on this team. I know my role.” On this Duke team, that alone may make Thornton irreplaceable.

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