Rasheed Sulaimon climbs out of the doghouse in No. 8 Duke’s 80-63 win

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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.

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The doghouse.

A slump.

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.”

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.