In last season's Midwest Regional Final, Duke and Louisville were tied 42-42 with just under 16 minutes to play. Quinn Cook got to the rim for what would have been Duke's first lead since 32-31 (Quinn Cook free throws) but his shot was blocked. We didn't know it at the time, but Duke's season had just ended. Over the next ten minutes the Blue Devils would only make one field goal (Quinn Cook layup) and by the time Mason Plumlee threw down a dunk with five minutes to play (Quinn Cook assist) Duke was down 16 to the eventual national champion.
This capped a frustrating season in which Andre Dawkins took the year off for personal reasons, Seth Curry was hobbled and unable to practice for most of the year, and Ryan Kelly broke his foot and missed 13 games.
Duke has now gone three straight seasons without winning the ACC regular season or advancing to a Final Four. If that doesn't sound like a long time, keep in mind that a three-year run like that has only happened one other time at Duke since the early 1980s – it was the three years leading up to their 2010 national title.
Now they've lost Curry, Kelly, and Mason Plumlee.
But don't pull out your violin and start playing dirges for Duke just yet. This is, after all, Duke, and Duke is loaded. Duke has more consensus top-100 recruits (10) on their roster than all but two teams in the nation: Kansas (11) and North Carolina (10). This is a team that will likely be favored to lock up a 1-seed in March.
They return Rasheed Sulaimon, who is one of the top 2-3 sophomores in the country. Their wing tandem of Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker is unmatched. They lack a dominant big man, but they will be more athletic than recent Duke editions. They'll spread the floor. They'll defend.
And the key to how far they can go with this formula is junior point guard Quinn Cook.
Cook's freshman season was derailed by a lingering knee issue, which forced him to sit out the team's overseas trip to China and Dubai. He only ended up playing 28% of the minutes as a freshman, though he did show plenty of promise. As a sophomore he played more minutes than everyone but Plumlee. He made 39% of his 3s and he had the 3rd best assist rate in the ACC. Now, with Shane Larkin, Lorenzo Brown, and Erick Green gone, Cook is poised to be the best point guard in the conference.
He has the skills to push the team. They'll need to play faster this season, and as a junior he should be able to guide them and keep the team under control. That's the baseline expectation. If he does that, Duke will be really solid. But if he has an exceptional season, he'll be the difference between another Elite Eight type team and one that could win another title.
He'll have plenty of weapons around him, but it will be his job to make all those weapons gel. If he can do that, he should be able to keep his team away from another late game collapse like the one which sent them packing last year. That's his role this year – to be the leader.