HOUSTON (AP) — Like his Duke teammates sitting on either side of him at the podium, Quinn Cook had a strand of the cut-down net sticking out of his regional championship cap.
The senior guard also had a bottom portion of the net hanging loosely around his neck, and a grin on his face. While Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski is going to his record-tying 12th NCAA Final Four, Cook finally gets to experience one for himself in his last chance as a player.
Coach K and Cook both have to give a lot of credit to a talented quartet of freshmen — including starters Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones — that came together with the few returners to become the 16th Duke team to make it to the Final Four.
“It was easy to mesh. They came in so close, all four of those guys were so close and coming in they were very humble,” Cook said Sunday after a 66-52 win over Gonzaga in the South Regional final. “You know, we all had relationships with them before they got to campus in July. So, we were pretty cool and it was easy.”
Krzyzewski’s youngest team ever is going to Indianapolis, taking its 68-year-old coach along for the ride in what he has called “one of the most unique years” he has had in his 35 seasons at Duke. His 12th Final Four will equal UCLA’s John Wooden for the most ever by a head coach
“To have Jah, Tyus curious as a point guard, to see how Quinn has led, that’s what keeps it refreshing,” Krzyzewski said.
Duke (33-4), the No. 1 seed from the South Regional, plays its national semifinal game Saturday against Michigan State (27-11). In the nightcap at Indianapolis, Kentucky (38-0) continues its pursuit of perfection against Wisconsin (35-3).
This is the Blue Devils’ first Final Four since 2010, when they also went through Houston and the NFL Texans’ stadium as the No. 1 seed in the South on way to their fourth national championship.
The four freshmen, including backup guard Grayson Allen, make up half of Duke’s eight regular players. The other two available players, including the only senior other than Cook, have combined to play less than 30 minutes all season.
“There are eight guys. There’s not somebody hiding in the locker room that’s going to come out and appear. And four freshmen. They’ve been spectacular,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s been such an incredible year. I’ve enjoyed it immensely without thinking about.”
Winslow got to be home in Houston to play in the Sweet 16 and regional final the same week he turned 19. He had 21 points and 10 rebounds in a 63-57 win over Utah on Friday night, then matched sophomore Matt Jones with a team-high 16 points Sunday.
“We’ve got eight guys that can just go out there and play. This is where we thought we’d be,” Winslow said. “There was never a doubt in our mind that we could make it to the Final Four.”
Even when Krzyzewski, with USA Basketball and other offseason obligations, wasn’t around much after the newcomers first got to campus last summer. That’s when Cook and Amile Jefferson, a big junior forward, did their part helping the youngsters adapt to life on the Durham campus — and the way of Blue Devils basketball.
“Coach was gone a lot of summer, so myself and Amile as leaders, we wanted to make sure there wasn’t no let-off when Coach got back,” Cook said. “Those freshmen stepped up, staying after practice, getting in shots, to acclimate to new college life. They’ve just grown up so much, and those four freshmen, they don’t play like freshmen at all.”
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