CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM—“This team is not gonna go away,” is what Coach Krzyzewski said to his No. 6 Duke Blue Devils during Tuesday night’s second round of NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament play against a relentless Eastern Carolina University squad.
Of course, he gave this warning sometime after the Blue Devils opened the first half with an 11-of-11 field-goal shooting barrage. While their early perfection suggested that this game would be their third, 30-plus point victory in five days, ECU—led by guards Prince Williams and Antonio Robinson—eventually rallied from behind and cut Duke’s lead to one point midway through the second half.
Even if Coach K thought that the atmosphere in Cameron was ruined by questionable NIT ticketing procedures, the two, large, and rowdy ECU fan sections still couldn’t outdo the Cameron Crazies. Pirates head coach Jeff Lebo played for four years as a Tar Heel underneath Dean Smith, so that might have given ECU cause to increase the octaves. However, as many times as ECU tried to make a run to take the lead or tie the game, these things would happen: Quinn Cook would get his shooting groove back, Jabari Parker would make back-to-back blocks (two of his six on the night), Parker would get a rebound and weave coast to coast through the whole ECU team for a dunk, or Rodney Hood—who scored a game-high 30 points—would sneak his way to the rim for a layup.
ECU didn’t go away. Duke put them away.
Sulaimon’s defense convinced me of this. The NCAA’s new hand-checking rules give quick ball handlers like ECU’s Prince Williams many more opportunities to expose the weaknesses of slower, less agile defenders. If an on-the-ball defender can no longer use his hands to keep his man in front of him, that defender must rely solely on his feet and positioning. Sulaimon is a master at this—the zig-zag drill, the shifting on a dime, the shuffle. In the 22 minutes he played, he stuck with Williams, keeping him flustered and tired enough to throw off ECU’s offense.
Here, (at least on defense) we saw flickers of the Sulaimon from last season. This season, on offense, the sophomore slasher has played like an outcast to this new Duke system, which is currently being ran by Hood and Parker’s magic. He may not know where he fits in. But Sulaimon doesn’t need to touch the ball as much as those guys do, he just needs to look less clueless and less anxious when he does get a touch.
Following Duke’s first-round win over UNC Asheville, Coach Krzyzewski confirmed that Rasheed Sulaimon was still playing through a lingering illness and had been for the last two games. “He didn’t play very well. That was pretty obvious, right?” Coach K said to me after the game. “You don’t even have to quote me on that. You can just make an astute comment. But I’ll verify it. I’ll have your back.”
It wasn’t as obvious tonight against ECU, but Sulaimon still needs to have Duke’s back on both ends of the court.
Next week, Duke (4-1) will head to Madison Square Garden in New York to play against Alabama (3-1) in the semifinal round of the NIT Season Tip-Off. But first, the Blue Devils will play another home against University of Vermont, on Sunday, Nov. 24 at 6:30 p.m.
Click here for the Duke/ECU box score.