NASSAU, Bahamas -- The second annual Battle 4 Atlantis is in the books, with No. 5 Duke edging No. 2 Louisville in the final, 76-71. When the game ended, the ballroom-turned-arena at this expansive resort erupted with ear-popping fireworks and colorful, drifting confetti. This wasn't just a basketball tournament. It was a spectacle. Here are five things we learned from Saturday night's final.
1. Duke has found its missing piece.
The Blue Devils' biggest question in the preseason was whether they would be strong at point guard. That was a weak spot last season, mostly because then-freshman Quinn Cook was not ready to replace the one-and-done incumbent, Kyrie Irving. Duke has a good veteran option in 6-1 junior guard Tyler Thornton, but he is more dependable than dynamic, more defensive specialist than offensive spark plug. If the Blue Devils were going to be a great team, the thinking went, they would need Cook to emerge as an effective playmaker.
Cook has proven to be just that. It started for him in Duke's win over Kentucky two weeks ago, when he had seven points and three assists in 30 quality minutes. Eager to build Cook's confidence, Mike Krzyzewski promoted him to the starting lineup the following game against Georgia State. Cook responded with three outstanding games here at the Atlantis, the last two coming against high-octane, fullcourt-pressing teams in VCU and Louisville. In those two games, Cook had a total of 24 points, 15 assists and seven turnovers. Against Louisville he showed he has the clutch gene by hitting the biggest shot of the game, a running, floating one-hander as the shot clock was winding down that put Duke up 72-67 with 29 seconds to play. And he made all six of his free throws.
During his disappointing freshman season, Cook's biggest problem wasn't execution but body language. Coach K has always been huge on facial expressions -- he once famously made a video of Bobby Hurley making pained expressions to teach his star point guard to toughen up -- and the coach believes it's no coincidence that Cook's game is now matching his demeanor.
"You have to look like a winner before you become a winner," Krzyzewski said Saturday night. "When you're the point guard, you're the lead of our defense and the lead of our offense. If that position is not strong, it weakens you. Quinn has been really strong for us."
2. Louisville has lots of potential and one potentially big problem.
After the Cardinals nearly blew an 18-point lead over Northern Iowa Thursday night, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino came to his postgame press conference in a lousy mood. He was much more cheerful Saturday night, even though his team won. Welcome to the coach's life.
Pitino had much reason to be happy. He could look down at the box score and see that his starting backcourt of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith combined for 10 turnovers, and that his team got neglible contributions from 6-5 sophomore Wayne Blackshear (2 points), 6-6 sophomore Chane Behanan (2-for-11 shooting) and 6-6 junior Luke Hancock, the much-ballyhooed transfer (zero points). Despite all that, if Louisville had converted a few more free throws, it could have defeated the fifth-ranked team in the country. "I told our guys tonight, 'I'm really proud of you. You're a top 10 team in every measure of the word,' " Pitino said. "We have great heart and great potential. I'm excited for the future of this basketball team. I haven't always said that, but I'm excited."
Alas, there was one name that was completely missing from the box score. Gorgui Dieng, a 6-11 junior center who is one of the nation's top shot blockers, did not play because of an injury to his left wrist that he sustained during Louisville's semifinal win over Missouri. The wrist was swollen so badly on Saturday morning that Pitino didn't even want to have it X-rayed. "I told [our doctor], why waste your time? If it's broken, you're going to get me disappointed. I want to stay in an upbeat mood," Pitino said. The coach added that if Dieng's wrist is broken, he will be out four to six weeks. If it's sprained, he could be out two to three weeks.
Dieng will get the X-ray shortly after the team arrives back in Louisville on Sunday. Let's see how upbeat Pitino is then.
3. Duke is going to win a lot of games at the free throw line.
As soon as Louisville advanced defeated Missouri in Friday night's semifinal, Pitino was asked about the impending matchup with Duke. He replied that he hadn't seen any of Duke's games, but he did glance at the box score and saw that the Blue Devils had shot 24 for 27 from the foul line during their 67-58 win over VCU. "If we can't keep them off the line tomorrow night, we're going to have a hard time beating them," he said.
Well, guess what: Louisville couldn't keep the Devils off the line, and it didn't beat them. Get used to hearing this. Duke finished 23 for 27 from the charity stripe. Over the three days, the Blue Devils were 68 for 80 for an astounding 80 percent.
The reason Duke gets to the foul line so often is it can create those opportunities by driving their guards or posting their bigs. To wit, both Plumlee and 6-2 senior guard Seth Curry tied for the most free throws in this tournament with 23 each. When you play most teams, you pick your poison. Duke's poison has poison.
4. The best coaches schedule the toughest games.
Once the game was over, both coaches voiced the same weary complaint. "The unfortunate thing for us is that I made the schedule so difficult this year. We have a lot of battles ahead," Pitino said. Added Krzyzewski, "The schedule that we have is unbelievable. It's an incredible schedule."
These two guys have won a lot of games, so there is obviously a method to their madness. Between now and the start of conference play, Louisville will go up against Illinois State at home, Charleston and Memphis on the road, and then play the big one against Kentucky at home on Dec. 29. Meanwhile, Duke has already played Kentucky and welcomes No. 3 Ohio State to Cameron Indoor Stadium next Wednesday. The Blue Devils' nonconference schedule also features NIT semifinalist Delaware, a game against Temple in the Meadowlands and another one against a very good Davidson team in Charlotte. (Davidson beat Vanderbilt and West Virginia this week at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.)
If this is crazy, then maybe more coaches should be crazy. There are not many guys who consistently schedule such hard nonconference games. (Tom Izzo comes to mind. You may have noticed his teams tend to play well in March.) There is some risk involved in doing this because a team can easily go on a confidence-sapping losing skid, but the potential rewards are too good to pass up. Teams get tougher by playing difficult games, and win or lose the coaches learn a lot about their teams. Besides, the players love playing in big games. This is supposed to be fun, right?
5. Atlantis is the new Maui.
After the tournament was over, Krzyzewski said "this field ranks as good as any that we've been a part of, [including] the NIT [and] Maui [Invitational]." There is a very good chance that as many as seven (and possibly all eight) of the teams who played in the Battle 4 Atlantis will play in the NCAA tournament. As soon as the final was over, the Atlantis revealed seven of the eight teams who will play here next year: Kansas, Tennessee, USC, UTEP, Villanova, Xavier and Wake Forest. That's not quite as strong as this year's field, but I'm hearing that the eighth team will likely be a very high-caliber program. North Carolina has already agreed to play here in 2014.
We are used to thinking of the Maui Invitatonal as the premiere annual early-season touranment, but while that event will continue to draw strong fields, it appears that the Battle 4 Atlantis is primed to overtake it. The biggest reason is the enormous guarantee money the hotel is shelling out. The Bahamas is also a lot easier to get to than Hawaii, for the teams as well as their fans.
If you're a college basketball fan, you don't want to wait until January to see compelling matchups. The glut of Thanksgiving week tournaments is a satisfying annual feast. It looks to me like the Battle 4 Atlantis is going to be considered the main course for several years to come.