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Firming up spots outside Big Three will be deciding factor for Duke

By Jon Rothstein | CBS Sports

Players like Tyler Thornton will decide how far Duke goes in the NCAA tournament. (USATSI)
Players like Tyler Thornton will decide how far Duke goes in the NCAA tournament. (USATSI)

NEW YORK --- Duke's triumvirate of Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, and Quinn Cook is good enough to match up with any trio in college basketball.

Parker is as difficult a player to guard as there is in the sport and the potential number one pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.

Hood is a skilled, lefty forward that extends defenses at 6-foot-8.

And Cook has emerged as a high-level floor general that can impact the game both by scoring and facilitating.

Those three players combined for 51 points in the Blue Devils' 80-63 win over UCLA on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

But for the Blue Devils to have the type of season they hope to have, they're going to need to get mileage out of the players that fill the other two spots on the floor.

"It starts with our two seniors --- Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said on Thursday night when asked about his team's supporting cast around Parker, Hood, and Cook. "The way they talk defensively sets the tone. They're constantly getting everyone involved and where they need to be. The guys who will fill those other two spots on the floor are guys that are going to have big roles for us."

After being tied at 37 at half time, the Blue Devils broke the game open at the start of the second half by using Hood (14 points) and Parker (23 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) on the wings with sophomore Amile Jefferson in the pivot.

The Philadelphia native gave the Blue Devils an anchor down low and finished the game with 11 points and seven rebounds.

"We did a really good job of hitting him the middle of their zone," Krzyzewski said of the 6-9 Jefferson. "That's the best he's played since the beginning of the season."

Jefferson looks like a strong potential candidate to stabilize the "five" spot moving forward and has grabbed 23 rebounds in his last three games.

The other perimeter position next to Cook has been a revolving door for Duke so far this season.

Krzyzewski loves Thornton's intangibles, and Andre Dawkins has the ability to make shots from deep, but if Thursday night is any indication, it appears Rasheed Sulaimon is slowly working his way back into the role many expected him to have at the start of the season.

After playing sporadically throughout the first month of the year, Sulaimon logged 18 minutes against UCLA and scored eight points, grabbed six rebounds, dished out five assists, and hit a key three-pointer late in the game to put the Blue Devils' ahead by 11 at 74-63.

"That's the best he's played this year," Krzyzewski said. "He's had a really good couple of weeks of practice. I was really happy for him that he made that shot at the end. To see his teammates that excited for him was really cool."

The talents of Parker and Hood along with the leadership of Cook are going to win this team plenty of games in the ACC.

The question is, can the rest of the players on Duke's roster produce enough offensively to keep the defense honest, and help this team overcome its lack of traditional size on the baseline?

Those are the two things that will be most critical for the Blue Devils when it matters most --- in March during the NCAA tournament.

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