When Kentucky fell, fans rejoiced. Fans, for whatever reason, couldn’t stand the fact that the Wildcats were two games away from the first perfect season since 1978.
Why? Who knows. Maybe it’s because these fans were afraid to witness greatness. Maybe because Kentucky was so good, people wanted to see them fail only because they epitomized what so many people can’t attain; perfection.
If an everyday human being can’t be perfect, why should they?
But two days later, Duke did what Kentucky was trying to do: win with a group of one-and-dones. With an untested, resilient group of ‘diaper dandies’, Duke claimed the championship that Kentucky so badly coveted.
But it was beyond those freshmen phenoms that Duke separated themselves from Kentucky. It was with Quinn Cook.
What made Kentucky’s run so impressive, beyond the fact that they dismantled the majority of their opponents, was how young they were. Two freshmen, two sophomores, and a junior started for the Wildcats. Off the bench they relied on a pair of freshman and a sophomore.
But Duke was all of that, and some. The Blue Devils started three freshmen while giving a fourth major minutes off the bench. Along with their trifecta in the starting lineup, Mike Krzyzewski started one sophomore and one senior.
So if Kentucky was considered young, so too should be Duke. But Duke utilized their one advantage, Cook.
Kentucky was trying to prove that you don’t need a veteran leader to pace your offense, but ultimately no veteran leader proved to be their downfall.
Cook was the opposite of that. Cook was to Duke what Darius Miller was to the 2011-12 National Champion Kentucky Wildcats. He had been there, done that. He wanted the national championship more than any other player on the court. Sure a freshman wants to win it all, but a senior will win at all costs.
What Duke proved in their victory over Wisconsin was simple. Yes, freshman can and will star for you. They will be your focal points for most, if not all of the game. But having a senior, a player who has been there, who has experienced the greatest highs and the lowest lows in college, makes the difference.
Cook served as the levelheaded, cold-blooded leader that Duke needed. He was the coach on the court, maybe not making all the highlight plays, but inspiring the likes of Justice Winslow, Tyus Jones, and Grayson Allen to make them.
Cook had as pedestrian of a box score as you can; six points, 3-of-8 shooting, including 0-for3 from beyond the arc, all to go with four rebounds and two assists. It won’t win him a Most Outstanding Player, MOP, award or an All-Conference team selection. But it will win him a national championship.
Wisconsin relied on their star senior, Frank Kaminsky, to be the focal point of their offense. As Sam Dekker struggled to get anything going (0-for-6 from three-point), Kaminsky became the man they turned to. Pouring in 21 points, the Badgers senior leader was the entire Badgers offense.
That wasn’t Cook’s role. Kaminsky had to pull his team to victory, Cook just had to push. Cook took the backseat to Winslow, Jones, Jahlil Okafor, and Allen in the stat sheet, but he drove the team emotionally.
It’s fair to say that Kaminsky was a more battle tested senior than Cook, having made the Final Four last season and reaching the Sweet Sixteen as a freshman. He had more tournament games under his belt. Cook had more pain.
As a freshman, Cook and the Blue Devils fell to 15 seeded Lehigh in the round of 64, and as a junior, Cook watched 14 seeded Mercer eliminate Duke in the same round. Cook had felt the heartbreak of having so much and losing it all. He had seen his team’s score plastered all over Sports Center. He had experienced the humiliation of being the fifth No. 2 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a 15 seed.
So when Cook finally got his chance to make a run and play in meaningful games, he wasn’t going to squander that opportunity.
In five years, fans will remember the heroics of those three, of Okafor turning it on when Duke needed him most. The fans may not remember, nor realize, just how much Cook meant to this championship team.