NEW YORK -- In the moments before Duke tipped off against UCLA, Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton looked at each other and smiled. It wasn't their first time in Madison Square Garden -- the Blue Devils had played Arizona just a couple weeks prior -- but much like that first visit, the two were taken aback again. Once AAU teammates, Cook and Thornton had dreamed of playing in the Garden. And they'd arrived here again Thursday night.
Jabari Parker also smiled at teammates and high-fived hands that passed by, but his pregame warm-ups were filled with driving, dribbling, dunking and draining jump shots. He hardly spoke a word. He was focused only on what was right in front of him.
Eventually, 15,000 fans filed into the Garden. Among them were Tyson Chandler and Tim Hardaway Jr. of the Knicks, 45 NBA scouts, and even Bruce Springsteen, whose daughter is a Duke sophomore. They all had tickets for UCLA vs. Duke, but what most of them wanted to witness was another episode of the Jabari Parker show. And Parker delivered again, scoring 23 points and adding 10 rebounds and six assists to lead the Blue Devils to an 80-63 win.
Following the win, Parker went through the paces he may go through a year from now, changing in an NBA locker room and speaking softly and calmly to a rotating chorus of a dozen reporters.
Asked about the number of reporters, he said: "It feels like we have about the same at Duke ... I don't know, I don't really pay much attention."
Asked about the scouts in attendance, he said: "To be honest, I don't really pay attention to the [them] anymore."
Asked about Springsteen, he said: "He was a little ahead of my time."
Neither the attention nor the glamour of the Garden appeared to affect Parker. "It's the mecca of college basketball, for sure, but you kind of get over the shock after you play here a few times."
Instead, he seemed more concerned with his defense. He said he knew that he was learning and improving, but also knew he needed to play better defense to create more opportunities for him and his teammates on offense. And his coach agreed.
"The main area he needs to learn is defense," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He can be a very special player. He is an outstanding player, but he can become better, and that is my responsibility. That is why he came to Duke, to learn and to become better."
After all, it was defense that forced a game tied at 37 at halftime in the Blue Devils' direction. Duke slowed down the Bruins up-tempo offense in the second half, limiting them to just 26 points. When their three-point attack came alive for the Blue Devils, they found a comfortable 10-point cushion around the 12-minute mark and never looked back.
The win will be Duke's last game in the Garden unless they draw the Eastern Regional of the NCAA tournament. "I'm just praying we get that draw," Cook said. "It would be amazing to play in the Garden again."
For Cook, who is a borderline NBA prospect, any game in the Garden could be his last. That in part is why Cook savored the moments before the game. For his teammate, Parker, Cook said, the venue doesn't affect the result.
"He has a special, special focus," Cook said of his freshman teammate. "It doesn't matter if it's a pickup game, or if we're playing outside, or if we're playing in the Garden. He plays like every game matters the most."
And that's what matters most for Duke: Parker is playing in the present.