Back in the saddle
The ebb and flow of a college basketball season normally includes more extreme deviations for freshmen.
With 20 double-digit scoring performances, Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon did his best to disprove that theory this season.
Still, Sulaimon had a couple of dips in play, including in Duke’s most recent games, and the 6-4 guard hopes he’s ready for an upswing now that NCAA Tournament time has arrived.
Through the middle of Duke’s ACC schedule in January and February, Sulaimon had a red-shot stretch where he scored in double figures in 9 of 11 games. Twice he reached 25 points, including his season-best 27-point day in an 89-68 win over Boston College on Feb. 24.
Just when it looked like Sulaimon had the ACC rookie of the year award wrapped up, he stumbled in all phases of his game. He closed the regular season with a four-game stretch where his highest scoring output was seven points.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said his struggles involved more than simply putting the ball in the basket.
“He has to react a little differently — more energy, better defense, rebounding,” Krzyzewski said during a March 8 news conference.
The next night, when Duke played North Carolina at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, Sulaimon was out of the starting lineup for only the second time this season.
His response? A game where he had the same number of points as turnovers — one.
That earned him a reserve role for a second consecutive game, on Friday night in the ACC Tournament against Maryland.
This time, Sulaimon showed the aggressiveness his coaches wanted to see. He scored 16 points but also grabbed six rebounds and didn’t turn the ball over in a game that the Blue Devils lost 83-74.
To many observers at the Greensboro Coliseum, he was the most confident Duke player on a down night for the Blue Devils.
Because of that upswing in performance, Sulaimon finds himself back working with the starters as the Blue Devils prepare for to play Albany on Friday (12:15 p.m., WRAL) in the NCAA Tournament at Philadelphia’s Wells-Fargo Center.
“It feels good (to be starting),” Sulaimon said. “But at the same time, I’ve just got to bring it each and every game, whether I’m starting or coming off the bench. I have to do what they need me to do. There are no second chances now.
“Whatever they need me to do, I’ve got to go in there and do it whether that’s coming off the bench or starting.”
Sulaimon has turned in a good first year as a college basketball player. He is averaging 11.5 points per game and has made 43.2 percent of his shots, including 37.8 percent of his 3-pointers.
He has far more assists (65) than turnovers (43).
Krzyzewski said Sulaimon has experienced what many freshmen players do as they adjust to the tougher demands asked of them in college basketball.
“They’ve never played this hard, this long,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s not even close. Freshman, I don’t care what high school program you come from, he’s the best player in his league maybe the best player in his state. Even when he thinks he’s playing hard, he only has to play so hard relative to his competition.
“There’s never somebody in practice who is older and better than him. He doesn’t have an academic load. He’s not home. All those things lead into a freshman having ups and downs. And for him, he’s had many more ups than downs.”
Sulaimon’s highlights this season include his 14-point game in a 69-66 win over Louisville on Nov. 24 and 17 points the following game, on Nov. 28, when Duke beat Ohio State 73-68.
He also suffered through an 0-of-10 shooting day when the Blue Devils lost at N.C. State 84-76 on Jan. 12.
After his 27-point game against Boston College last month, Sulaimon was 7-of-23 from the field over his next four games with eight turnovers.
“I was having a bad stretch, a little bit, those couple of games,” Sulaimon said. “It was just something I had to sit back and reflect on what I did wrong in those games and just come back strong in the next game, just play my game, trust my instincts.”
He did that against Maryland, and now he knows he must do the same if the Blue Devils are to keep winning and advancing in the NCAA Tournament.
“At this time of year, it’s no more excuses,” Sulaimon said. “I’m not a freshman anymore. I’m a veteran. Now I’ve just got to go out there and play. I know what to expect now.”