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Behind Enemy Lines: Basketball Q&A with Duke Basketball Report

Before Saturday's primetime showdown, we get the inside scoop on the road to Coach K's 1000th, how to stop Jahlil Okafor, and who might step up in Rasheed Sulaimon's absence

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to JD over at Duke Basketball Report for helping answer our questions! Be sure to check out our answers at DBR as well.

[Editor's Note: We exchanged questions prior to the news about Rasheed Sulaimon's dismissal. You'll see why this matters later...]

STL: The road to Coach K's 1000th was a little rockier than anyone expected, with the surprising road loss to NC State and the baffling home blowout loss to Miami. After getting #1,000 in a hard-fought game at St. John's, win 1,001 eluded the Devils in South Bend. What's your read on how the milestone has affected the team? Distraction? Burden? None of the above?

DBR: The thing about Duke and Coach K is that there's always been a laser focus. That's why he usually wins 25-30 games a year and why Duke is upset only rarely. I don't think it affected them nearly as much as Notre Dame playing brilliantly. Jerian Grant was superb. He's a tremendous athlete. The rest of the team is pretty good too.

STL: Out with Jabari, in with Jahlil. Despite their different playing styles—Parker as more of a wing/stretch-4, Okafor as a more traditional interior player—each player has been the focal point of the last two years' Duke squads. Which one was (or is) more important to Duke's success? Is it fair to make that comparison at this point, or at all?

DBR: I think the similarity is that neither is a stellar defender, though Jahlil is far superior to Jabari, whose defense last year was pretty mediocre. Parker was brilliant on offense, but Okafor...I've never seen a big guy with that sort of footwork. At times it takes your breath away to watch his spin move. It's like someone pulled a string and spun him—it's that quick. And he weighs 270. Jabari is really good but Jahlil's like having a Corvette and a high-performance Mercedes. You know the 'Vette will get you there really fast, but the Mercedes will too and with more elegance. Jahlil is more elegant.

But he's also really strong. Check out his hands. The ball is a grapefruit. He can do things that only Wilt Chamberlain really ever did. The other day against Pitt he caught a rebound with one hand. It was like he had a Hoover in it, just caught it and held it with one hand. It was amazing.

STL: Okafor rightly draws much of the media attention, but any opponent overlooks Duke's backcourt at its peril. Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones both rank in the top 40 nationally in KenPom's O-Rating, and Rasheed Sulaimon comes off the bench but leads Duke in 3-point shooting. [Editor again: Told you it would matter.] If Okafor gets bottled up, which of the guards is most able to take the load onto his shoulders? On the flip side, if Okafor is going wild, which guard provides him the best 1-2 punch?

DBR: Well pretty clearly it's not going to be Sulaimon. Quinn Cook has really matured for Duke and made a huge difference. He's been really excellent. Jones is a superb young point, but he is still erratic and he's also fairly small. He's got a lot of nerve, but he's a little guy. You don't want to send a dog in to a lion's den, but if you do, you want a crazy little Terrier because he'll come out with his teeth in the lion's ass. That's where Tyus will be one day, but he's not there all the time yet. But he's really good and improving.

STL: Are there any concerns with Duke's depth? Of course any player who suits up for the Blue Devils will be a talented, well-coached basketball player. But the numbers make Duke look very first-five heavy. Who of the guys off the bench has been able to accrue enough experience that you would feel comfortable with them playing in a tight situation?

DBR: More Friday than Wednesday. Fortunately, Matt Jones is a solid defender and team player, and he'll do a great job whenever he's in, though he's had some foul problems at times. He's improving rapidly. I'm curious to see how Grayson Allen is used now. He hasn't played much since early, but he can get off the ground, he's fast, and he's strong. He just needs to get used to the college game.

STL: Virginia's road loss at Cameron was one of only two ACC losses for last year's Cavaliers, but one they avenged in the ACC Tournament Finals. This year, The Duke Game (all caps, of course) starts the most difficult stretch of schedule for the Hoos. There's certainly been no shortage of hype for this matchup, but KenPom gives Duke only a 12% chance of winning; ESPN's BPI projections are in the same ballpark. How do you see things playing out at the JPJ on Saturday night? Bottom line: Who ya got?

DBR: It's been clear to me for some time that this Virginia team is outstanding. But there are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. You have to either double Okafor or leave someone open, and Duke has a lot of three point shooters. I don't know if Virginia fans have seen what a remarkable passer Okafor is. You try and gang up on him and he hits someone with a bullet.
  2. Justise Winslow, who has had shoulder and rib injuries, hasn't been himself for some time. He started to re-emerge against Notre Dame and if he keeps that up against Virginia, Duke has a weapon much like Justin Anderson. Winslow is a huge talent. Earlier I thought he might actually be more important than Okafor in some ways. I'll trade Sulaimon for a healthy Winslow any day. He just hasn't been himself for some time.
  3. I forget the term for this, but psychologists have an expression for when people band together against perceived outside difficulties. I could be wrong, but given what I've seen of Duke over the years, and Coach K, adversity tends to make them stronger. So I expect the Duke you'll see after Sulaimon's dismissal is going to be a lot more ruthless than the team you would have seen earlier in the week. Does that mean a Duke victory? But what it probably does mean, in Larry Bird's memorable phrase, is that you'll get Duke - both barrels.

All else aside, Jahlil Okafor is a very rare player. I hope you guys get to see him at his best. He's turning into something quite special.