Dec 19, 2013, 9:24 PM EDT
NEW YORK — There was nothing memorable about the shot.
It was one of six threes that No. 8 Duke made and one of 18 that they hoisted up in the first half of their 80-63 win over UCLA on Thursday night in Madison Square Garden. It was the kind of play that gets taught to basketball players the minute they’re able to reach the rim from the three-point line, the kind of drive-and-kick action that we’ve seen out of a Mike Krzyzewski-coached team thousands of times over the years.
As Quinn Cook penetrated to the middle of UCLA’s zone, drawing the attention Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford, he got Rasheed Sulaimon all kinds of space on the left wing. As Cook let the pass go, he knew what this shot meant for Sulaimon, what it could potentially mean for the Blue Devils.
Before the ball even reach Sulaimon’s hands, Cook knew it was buckets.
“You’re back,” he said. “You’re back.”
“Before I even let it go,” a beaming Sulaimon said in the locker room after the game. “That kinda helped me a little bit. When I made it, I just looked at him. It was a big weight lifted off my shoulders.”
“I was kind of nervous when I took it.”
There’s no surprise there.
A bad spell.
For weeks, something had been going on with No. 8 Duke’s sophomore shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon. You can call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is that it’s been more than a month since Rasheed Sulaimon was a relevant factor in Duke’s lineup. He scored 33 points in the Blue Devils’ first two games of the year, but in the eight games between then entering Thursday night’s date with UCLA, Sulaimon had averaged 3.0 points. He made just two of his last 16 shots from the floor. He was shooting 20% since the Champions Classic. Against Michigan, he never set foot on the court. Against Gardner-Webb, he played five scoreless minutes.
Like I said, a non-factor. And if it wasn’t for Rodney Hood being a step late to try and take a change on Jordan Adams with 9:32 left in the half, picking up his second foul, there’s no guarantee that would have changed against UCLA. Duke had already gone through their off-guard rotation. Andre Dawkins came in for Tyler Thornton at the 15:00 mark. Matt Jones got on the floor a couple of minutes later, and both were on the bench when Thornton checked back into the game with 9:57 on the clock.
Hood picked up his second foul 25 seconds later, and 47 seconds after that, Cook found Sulaimon for that three.
The box score won’t blow you away. Sulaimon finished with eight points, five boards and four assists. He played 18 minutes and shot 3-for-7 from the floor. He turned the ball over twice. In any other circumstance, this would have been a disappointing performance for a kid that was considered a potential lottery pick entering the season.
It wasn’t even a great performance from Sulaimon given the circumstances, but there was a noticeable change in Sulaimon’s play. He was more aggressive. He looked more confident. He missed four of his next five shots after knocking down that first jumper, but he didn’t stop attacking. He didn’t stop shooting when he was open. Eventually, it paid off. Sulaimon hit a three with just over two minutes left to give the Blue Devils a 74-63 lead. He fought off two Bruins to track down a loose ball at the other end of the floor on the ensuing possession, following that up with a beautiful drive-and-dish, getting a layup for Amile Jefferson that put the win on ice.
“It’s the best he’s played this year,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game, and that’s terrific news for the Blue Devils. They don’t need Sulaimon to contend for an ACC title. Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook is enough to get them into the conversation. With Tyler Thornton, Andre Dawkins and Matt Jones all on the roster, Coach K has enough pieces at that off-guard spot to make things work. If he needs shooting, he’s got Dawkins. If he needs a defender, he’s got Thornton. If he needs a guy that can do a little bit of both, he’s got Jones.
The difference with Sulaimon is that he can shoot and he can defend, but he’s by far the most talented off-guard that Duke has. He’s the best penetrator on the roster, according to Cook. He brings a different dynamic to the Blue Devil attack. He just needed to be willing to buy into the role that he was given. No one is building an offense around Sulaimon when Parker and Hood are on the roster as well.
Sulaimon needed to see rock bottom, and taking a DNP-CD on national television in Duke’s biggest win of the season to date — the Michigan game — is a good way to do that.
“He has been practicing well the last two weeks and it paid off,” Coach K said. “I was so happy he hit that big shot to put us up 74-63.”
He wasn’t alone.
At the next timeout, following Sulaimon’s game-clinching sequence, he was mobbed by his teammates at half court. In the locker room after the game, he got a bear hug from assistant coach Jeff Capel. After exiting that embrace, Sulaimon walked straight into the waiting arms of Jon Scheyer, who hugged him and slapped him on the back as he yelled “Yessir!”
“I just want to thank those guys for helping me through the tough times,” Sulaimon said.
So much for the doghouse.
“He’s out,” Rodney Hood said. “He’s officially out.”
Mar 12, 2014, 12:38 AM EDT
Four autobids were decided on Tuesday as the NCAA Tournament has some new entrants into the field of 68. Find out who made the Big Dance and see how BYU is looking after its WCC title game loss.
Mar 11, 2014, 11:56 PM EDT
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Mar 11, 2014, 11:21 PM EDT
Meet the North Dakota State Bison, the winners of the Summit League and one of the — likely — trendy upset picks in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Mar 11, 2014, 10:29 PM EDT
The coaching carousel continued to spin on Tuesday night as Loyola Marymount opted not to renew the contract of head coach Max Good.
Mar 11, 2014, 10:06 PM EDT
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Mar 11, 2014, 9:16 PM EDT
The Milwaukee Panthers are dancing after winning four games in the Horizon League Conference Tournament. Meet one of the NCAA Tournament’s more dangerous double-digit seeds here.
Mar 11, 2014, 6:20 PM EDT
After only two seasons as head coach, Tennessee State has opted to fire head coach Travis Williams.
Mar 11, 2014, 6:15 PM EDT
The Southland’s top team has been upset in the conference tournament for the past three seasons. Will the trend continue? Or has the arrival of Stephen F. Austin’s new coach, Brad Underwood, altered the trajectory?
Mar 11, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
UNC Wilmington on Tuesday announced that head coach Buzz Peterson is out after four years at the school.
Mar 11, 2014, 5:37 PM EDT
Every year, there are a handful of teams that could use a couple of wins in their respective league tournaments to gain entry into the field of 68. Here are five schools that need to string some wins together this week to feel comfortable making NCAA Tournament.
Mar 11, 2014, 5:21 PM EDT
In light of the back injury that will keep Joel Embiid out for the Big 12 tournament and could foreseeably saddle him to the bench for the entirety of the NCAA tournament, we decided to take a look at season-ending injuries to key players on past National Title contenders: Kenyon Martin: Cincinnati was the No. 1…
Mar 11, 2014, 3:20 PM EDT
To follow along with the 2014 Coaching Carousel, click here. Bowling Green will not be renewing the contract of head coach Louis Orr, the school announced on Tuesday. Orr had coached the Falcons for seven seasons, finishing with a 101-121 record and just one season with a .500 record or better. BGSU was 12-20 this past…
2014 American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview: Louisville looks to win its only year in the AAC
Mar 11, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
The American came into this season as a big unknown, but with five likely NCAA Tournament teams and three All-Americans, this is one of the better leagues in college basketball this season. Can Louisville win the league in its only year in the American or will Cincinnati, Memphis, SMU or UConn get in the way?
Mar 11, 2014, 2:44 PM EDT
Vegas is good at predicting winners. Here are their odds for all of the major conference tournaments.
Mar 11, 2014, 2:34 PM EDT
Four automatic bids will be earned on Tuesday night, with the West Coast Conference title game headlining.
Mar 11, 2014, 1:16 PM EDT
Doug McDermott. Player of the Year. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Mar 11, 2014, 12:47 PM EDT
Saint Louis will look to repeat as the Atlantic 10 Tournament champion, but it won’t be easy. The field in Brooklyn could have six, yes six, NCAA tournament-bound teams.
Mar 11, 2014, 12:28 PM EDT
When you take your team to 34-0, you’re the National Coach of the Year. Pretty sure our forefathers wrote that into the Constitution.
Mar 11, 2014, 11:44 AM EDT
Now 15 teams deep, the ACC’s showcase event will span five days in Greensboro. Between the new arrivals, one upcoming departure and a plethora of talented players, this will be must-see television.
Mar 11, 2014, 10:54 AM EDT
The Duke star is NBCSports.com’s National Freshman of the Year.
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