Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With radical realignment cascading down from every shore, college basketball needed some normalcy to combat the uneasiness of conference calamity as we know it.
Duke answered that call, finishing off an impressive first month by navigating through a difficult three-game, three-day holiday stretch in the Bahamas and rallying past Ohio State on Wednesday. The Blue Devils have collected a season's worth of quality victories before the calendar reaches December, beating back Kentucky's youth in the season's first week, outlasting a Minnesota team that may have found the nation's next rising star (Andre Hollins), escaping the chaos created by VCU's 94-foot attack and stonewalling Louisville in the first meeting between Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Cardinals' Rick Pitino since "The Shot," Christian Laettner and thigh highs.
Mason Plumlee's maturation has been a big part of Duke's success, as a three- year role player has embraced his new title as go-to guy. The Blue Devils have also shot the three well, especially the player recruited to fill just that role, Rasheed Sulaimon, who has logged heavy minutes and made 40 percent of his long-range attempts. Duke's typical overplay man-to-man defense hasn't surrendered more than 71 points in any of its seven games.
Yet, the main reason Duke has already logged victories over five possible tournament teams is sophomore guard Quinn Cook, who lead the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in assists, averaging seven per game. The tournament also featured two of the nation's top point guards, Missouri's Phil Pressey and Louisville's Peyton Siva.
Cook is getting Duke into its motion sets and distributing the ball in transition, but the biggest reason why Cook is finding able, open shooters is his own offensive progression. He averaged just 3.5 shots in a little under 12 minutes a game last season, while making only one out of every four threes and averaging just 4.4 points per game.
Fast-forward to a more assertive ballhander, who has a clear grasp of Duke's offense and his role in it. He is the orchestrator, yes, but the point guard has found a new stroke, making 50 percent of his treys, averaging 10.7 points per game and forcing opposing point guards to play him honest, which only means more dribble-drive avenues to create space for Plumlee and less perimeter hedging from the opposition, which creates better shots for Sulaimon and fellow wing shooters Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry.
Duke has been more impressive than any team thus far, and it has many moving parts to thank, but it is pushing forward in unison thanks in large part to its point guard.
The names are different (Chris Duhon, Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith, now Cook), but some things never change, and in this national landscape, that is a welcome sight -- at least outside Chapel Hill.
KEEPING CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT STRAIGHT
It's a tall order, and From the End of the Bench would much rather be completely focusing on the 10-to-20 games on the tube each night, but we are here to inform, so in guess you missed it...
Louisville is headed to the ACC after a Wednesday league vote, in theory replacing Maryland, which bolted, along with Rutgers, to the Big Ten. UConn was left out in the cold, pushed aside by the ACC, which has now taken Syracuse, Pittsburgh and the Cardinals from the crumbling Big East. Remember, the Big East also lost West Virginia to the Big 12, and Notre Dame, which was a member in everything but football and hockey, has also announced it will take all non-pigskin and non-ice teams to the ACC.
The Big East is now scrambling. It added Tulane for all sports and East Carolina for just football beginning in 2014. Conference USA responded to its purge by plucking FAU (Florida Atlantic) and Middle Tennessee.
The big winner in this mess is the ACC, and From the End of the Beach would like to put in its residency request for the Carolina Triangle starting next year. Just picture a basketball conference that includes Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Syracuse, along with Florida State and North Carolina State.
Scary, but also sad. The shifting landscape has left UConn, at least for the time being, without a northeastern conference rival north of Philadelphia. Can't wait for those UConn-Temple "border" wars!
3 THOUGHTS (OF THANKS) FOR THE HOLIDAY WEEK THAT WAS
1. I'm thankful I have no association with Grinnell College, which made a mockery of the game on Nov. 20, ignoring every single one of Dr. Naismith's main tenets in a singular marketing/recruiting ploy. I don't fault Jack Taylor, who described his single-game record 138 points by commenting that he felt, "anything I tossed up was going in," despite actually missing 56 shots and making just 38 percent of his 3-point attempts. Any kid would salivate at hearing the magic phrase, "keep shooting" even if his eye-popping shot total came through a complete bastardization of basketball.
I do fault David Arseneault, who isn't coaching young men a game, but rather trying his hardest to make a name for himself by using his players as a means to an end. Arseneault's name has been mentioned in previous national columns after one of his players broke another "record," and he has heralded his mathematical formula as the next basketball doctrine, the same way Nate Silver's polling algorithm has consumed national politics.
In reality, it isn't a formula at all. It's crap. Deadspin reported that Taylor rarely crossed halfcourt on defense, his teammates passed up wide open layups so Taylor could chuck another 30-footer and Grinnell's famed "press" is actually a defensive sieve constructed to either cause a quick turnover or allow an easy basket, anything in the name of maximizing possessions.
And finally there has been some journalistic pushback and no more complete fawning over Arseneault's second-by-second orchestration of absurdity.
2. I'm thankful for Butler head coach Brad Stevens, who is one of college basketball's brightest minds. The Bulldogs never have the best athletes, but they have basketball gym rats who absorb all of Stevens' preachings, and that was on full display in Maui. Butler willed itself past Marquette then just waxed North Carolina out of the gate with fundamental precision, grit and a whole lot of Rotnei Clark, Stevens' new March star, an Arkansas transfer with unlimited range who will be a national name for hoops novices come tournament time.
3. California, Colorado and Arizona are off to great starts, but is time running out on Ben Howland in Westwood? Shabazz Muhammad has been as advertised since becoming eligible and the Wear twins are both averaging over 10 points and six boards a game, but the Bruins are missing toughness, which was a trademark of Howland-coached teams at Pittsburgh. They are coasting through games on natural ability, and it showed down the stretch against Georgetown and stuck out like a sore thumb in the second half of Cal Poly's 70-68 stunner. The Bruins should have never in a million years allowed such an inferior opponent to rally from 18 down then push across the finish line in Pauley Pavilion.
Howland is preaching the patience involved with integrating four freshmen -- Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker -- into the rotation, but how many times will a prideful alumni base allow games like last Sunday to happen on the heels of Howland's last two mediocre seasons?
This was supposed to be the season UCLA took that next step back to the upper echelon (much like Indiana), and it better soon for Howland's sake.
You know how this works, and if you don't, here is a quick tutorial. This is From the End of the Bench's view of the national picture each week with the 15th spot reserved for an off-the-radar team that has the potential to catch the viewers' eye in the weeks ahead.
1. Indiana (7-0): If Indiana extends and defends like it did over a 10-minute span on Tuesday night against North Carolina (1-of-20 to start the second half), it is the nation's best team. Cody Zeller runs the floor as well as his brother Tyler did for the Tar Heels, and the Hoosiers' depth will be a big asset in Big Ten play.
2. Duke (7-0): Polished is an apt adjective for Duke's November play. The Blue Devils have now beaten three members of last season's Final Four. A revenge win over Ohio State was a nice November nightcap.
3. Michigan (6-0): The efficient Wolverines made 50 percent of their shots against athletic North Carolina State due in large part to Trey Burke's dribble penetration. The All-American guard dished out 11 assists to zero turnovers in the win.
4. Florida (5-0): The Gators can still score, but the difference to date this season has been their defense. Five of six opponents under 60 and dates with a pair of defensive-minded foes (Marquette, Florida State) on the horizon. Those slugfests will tell a lot about this team.
5. Kentucky (4-1): We know the Wildcats have a top-5 ceiling, but we don't actually know a lot about this team, which has won three straight at home since the Duke loss. We find out a lot more on Thursday at Notre Dame.
6. Syracuse (4-0): The typical Jim Boeheim pre-January slate keeps the Orange in state for the most part, but From the End of the Bench is interested to see the Syracuse zone face a very athletic Arkansas team on Friday.
7. Louisville (5-1): The Cardinals lost their second-leading rebounder, Gorgui Dieng, to a broken left wrist, which puts more pressure on Chane Behanan on the inside. The question is, who is next in line to step up? The Cardinals have until a Dec. 15 date at Memphis to figure it out.
8. Ohio State (4-1): The Buckeyes served themselves well in Cameron Indoor on Wednesday night, and it's amazing to think a team this talented is likely the third best in its own conference. Ohio State needs to find some frontcourt defense, though, as Plumlee had his way on the block.
9. Kansas (5-1): The key for the Jayhawks is consistency. They looked dominant in wins over Washington State and Saint Louis and equally lost in spurts, including the first half against Chattanooga.
10. Arizona (4-0): This is a pure eye test assessment to date. It won't be much more for another week or more when the schedule starts to show some bite (at Clemson, vs. Florida).
11. Cincinnati (6-0): I remember when the Bearcats were an interior-oriented club that had trouble scoring. Now, Cincinnati is averaging almost 87 points per game with Sean Kilpatrick (21 points per game, 41.9 percent from three) leading an impressive group of guards.
12. Georgetown (4-1): A test comes Friday against a more-than-capable Tennessee team in the SEC/Big East Challenge, but Indiana's demolition of North Carolina actually adds cred to the Hoyas, who had several chances to knock off the Hoosiers before falling in OT.
13. Gonzaga (6-0): The 'Zags aren't just beating teams, they are pounding them. That trend, as well as Elijah Harris' frontcourt domination, won't be tested until an interesting three-game set against Washington State, Illinois and Kansas State.
14. Oklahoma State (5-0): I'm tooting my own horn from just a week ago, when I said Oklahoma State was going to be better than advertised. The 20-point waxing of North Carolina State in Puerto Rico showed the Cowboys have the game to reach lofty heights.
15. Boise State (5-1): How about that emphatic victory over Creighton on the Bluejays' home floor? Derrick Marks, a sophomore from Chicago, tallied a game- high 31 points, as the Broncos shot 62 percent from the floor. The Broncos may be for real. Their only loss was a four-point setback at Michigan State.