Duke Basketball: 5 Potential Wild Cards for Blue Devils in 2014 NCAA Tournament

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2014

Duke Basketball: 5 Potential Wild Cards for Blue Devils in 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Never underestimate the potential for Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski to flash an exasperated look, as pictured above in the Blue Devils' ACC tournament loss to Virginia.

    The NCAA tournament can bring out the cranky in any coach when things aren't going his way, and Duke's treacherous path through a loaded Midwest Region packs plenty of stress potential. While freshman forward Jabari Parker and wingman Rodney Hood command most of the spotlight, all the Blue Devils will need to produce to get Duke to Dallas for the Final Four.

    And that includes these five guys who don't have the notoriety of their celebrated teammates but will prove every bit as important. If these wild-card players are on their games, Duke can contend for the national championship. If not, there is no shortage of loaded teams capable of sending the Devils home early.

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Quinn Cook

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Most Relevant Numbers

    21.4 MPG, 39.2 percent from three over last 12 games

    Why He's Important

    Sure, Cook's lost his starting point guard job in the latter weeks of the season. Where he'll be even more useful in the NCAA tournament, though, is in doing something he dearly loves to do: shoot.

    Among Duke's potential second- and third-round opponents, only Tennessee ranks outside Ken Pomeroy's top 60 in three-point percentage defense. Most of the best defensive teams, however, rarely have to contend with teams who can go four- or even five-out the way Duke can.

    Since the loss at Syracuse, Cook's shot has been much more consistent and occasionally explosive. He sank five of seven long balls against Boston College and scored seven of Duke's final 13 points in trying to rally the troops at North Carolina.

    Cook's shaky defense and a two-inch height deficit make it hard to trust him to guard Mercer's star point guard, Langston Hall. However, if Coach K decides to play him off the ball, he'll be highly useful as a floor-spreader on offense, and he should be able to keep up with 6'2" gunner Anthony White.

Andre Dawkins

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    Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    Most Relevant Numbers

    9.0 MPG, 25 percent from three over last eight games

    Why He's Important

    Dawkins' value is inextricably tied to his shooting. The guy who made 22 triples in a six-game span in late January is still there, but he's currently hidden behind a player who's only hit six three-point baskets in his last eight games.

    Mercer is a very good three-point shooting team, so the second-round matchup may be another game in which Dawkins fails to escape the bench. None of the three potential third-round foes, however, is quite as consistent from long range, so Dawkins' defensive shortcomings may not prove as harmful to his team.

    The smaller UMass backcourt, in particular, could be a good opponent against whom Dawkins can regain some confidence. Tennessee would likely station perimeter stopper Josh Richardson on Dawkins at least part of the time, while Iowa may park 6'6" star Roy Devyn Marble on the spot-up shooting specialist.

    Without a potent inside scorer aside from Parker, Duke will need all the shooters it can find. Dawkins' stormy career has only a few days left, and he has to get back to making shots if he wants it to end on a sunny note.

Marshall Plumlee

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    Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    Most Relevant Numbers

    12.8 rebounds, 3.8 blocks per 40 minutes since Feb. 20

    Why He's Important

    Uh, he's big?

    Okay, that's oversimplifying matters, but when Plumlee has played, he's been productive. He owned the offensive glass against Florida State and Wake Forest, and he held his own in Duke's loss to North Carolina.

    Duke's tournament path could wind through multiple teams like North Carolina, meaning ones with a crew of strong big men. Tennessee and Iowa both rank among KenPom's top 15 in offensive rebounding percentage, and UMass gets occasionally dominant minutes from 6'10", 250-pound Cady Lalanne.

    The Blue Devils are solid on the offensive glass themselves, but the primary contributors are Parkerwhom the Devils cannot afford to lose to foul troublePlumlee and the 215-pound Amile Jefferson. If MP3 is stuck to the benchhe only played 30 minutes in Duke's last four gamesDuke's only two other big men will face a tremendous workload.

Rasheed Sulaimon

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Most Relevant Numbers

    27.8 percent three-point shooting over last five games

    Why He's Important

    Sulaimon's been in and out of the starting lineup since late January, getting some run as the Blue Devils' primary point guard. He averaged four assists per game in February, putting up 2.7 dimes for every turnover.

    As his shooting has struggled in March, though, his demeanor's become a bit salty. A technical foul for berating an official late in the ACC championship game may have been the final nail in Duke's coffin.

    "I just wanted to win so badly and I kind of let my emotions and let the game get too big for me," Sulaimon told the Associated Press (via USA Today).

    From here, the games only get bigger, even the first one against Mercer. The 6'4" Sulaimon may draw the first crack at guarding Langston Hall, and he'll need to have his head in the game the entire time against the Atlantic Sun's all-time assist king.

    From there, it doesn't get any easier. Roy Devyn Marble or Jordan McRae could await in the third round if the play-in winner slips past UMass. Michigan's Nik Stauskas may be the assignment in the Sweet 16. These players are entirely too good to lose focus against, since any of them can go for 30 points and send Duke home.

Tyler Thornton

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Most Relevant Numbers

    20 assists, 11 steals and only nine turnovers in last seven games

    Why He's Important

    The solid numbers above help make up for the fact that Tyler Thornton's on-again, off-again shot has been off again in March. He's made only four of 14 three-pointers (28.6 percent) in those last seven games.

    None of that, however, is why Thornton's been in the starting lineup since late January. He's there for hustle and defense. While the former is always on point, the latter needs his senior leadership now more than ever.

    According to Pomeroy's possession figures, Duke has hocked up 118.6 points per 100 possessions over its last five games. That rate of defensive (in)efficiency would rank 347th in the nation on the season, right between Tennessee-Martin and The Citadel (free link).

    Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee are all potential tournament opponents who rank in the national top 30 in offensive efficiency (another free link), with Michigan and Iowa clocking in at Nos. 3 and 4 respectively. These are teams capable of capitalizing on every missed rotation or soft hedge on a ball screen.

    It falls to Thornton to set the example and make sure his teammates stay focused at both ends, reminding them that Duke won't win by simply showing up and being Duke.

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