Luke DeCock

How Coach K’s dismissal of Sulaimon spurred Duke to greatness

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski cuts down the net after his team defeated Gonzaga 66-52 in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday to advance to the Final Four. Krzyzewski has coached Duke to the national championship four times, the last in 2010.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski cuts down the net after his team defeated Gonzaga 66-52 in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday to advance to the Final Four. Krzyzewski has coached Duke to the national championship four times, the last in 2010. Associated Press

In the days after Mike Krzyzewski dismissed Rasheed Sulaimon from the Duke basketball team, while questions swirled about the when and what and why, there was one thing everyone knew for certain.

Regardless of what Sulaimon did or didn’t do to get kicked off the team, either last winter or after the Notre Dame game, booting a key player had to be a tough decision for Krzyzewski, who had never done it before. Right?

He said as much after the win over Virginia.

“It is tough, on everybody,” Krzyzewski said that night in January. “Not just on poor old me. I’m OK. I’m supposed to be the adult. You never like those situations.”

Krzyzewski was undoubtedly aware at that point of the sexual-assault allegations against Sulaimon and had to know, as we all know now, that they were reported, investigated and dismissed. Whatever last rule Sulaimon broke, only Krzyzewski knows whether it would have gotten another player kicked off the team under different circumstances.

Perhaps Krzyzewski suspected he could not only win without Sulaimon, but might have a better team without him – making Sulaimon’s dismissal a gambit to bring out the best in Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow.

Regardless of his intent, the result was the same.

Without Sulaimon, Winslow and Jones were kicked out of the nest. There was no safety net now. It was on them, for better or for worse. Duke was down to eight players, and only eight players, with no cavalry coming over the hill.

“It was just a point in the season where we all had to come together,” Jones said. “That’s exactly what we did. We needed to lean on each other.”

Losing Sulaimon’s 7.5 points per game – statistics since excised from Duke’s game notes, as if he never existed – didn’t hurt Duke, because Jones and Winslow took a giant step forward.

In 20 games before Sulaimon’s release, Jones averaged 10.9 points and 4.95 assists. In the 17 games since, Jones has averaged 12.4 points and 6.6 assists. The improvement in Winslow’s numbers is even more impressive – his improving health unquestionably played a factor as well – as his scoring average went from 10.7 to 14.6, his rebounds from 4.5 to 8.5.

“Rasheed was a great player, but he was no longer a part of the team,” Winslow said. “We just collectively as a team knew that we had to step up in our individual ways to make up for it.”

Whatever depth issues the exits of Semi Ojelele, who transferred to SMU, and Sulaimon caused were addressed by the emergence of Grayson Allen, who had played sparingly to that point, although practices became shorter and more intense because of the sheer lack of bodies.

“We don’t practice as physical or as long, just because of the bodies and the minutes guys are playing,” Duke guard Quinn Cook said. “We started out with 10 guys, 10 scholarship guys, and practices were like games, really intense, especially early on. Recently, when we got to the meat of our schedule with eight guys, there was only so much we could do.”

At the time, Sulaimon’s dismissal looked like a cruel twist of fate for a team with national-championship aspirations. In hindsight, it looks like the best thing that could have happened to Duke. His final transgression turned out to be convenient, rather than untimely.

Duke has only lost once since and is back in the Final Four, Sulaimon is nowhere to be found and Winslow was Duke’s best player through the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament.

You could say Krzyzewski survived losing a talented and dynamic veteran player in the middle of the season. Or you could say he shed a troublemaker while sending an important message to more important, more critical players. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

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