DURHAM, N.C. — The story of No. 10 Duke’s 79-69 win over No. 22 Michigan on Tuesday night was some combination of the Blue Devils’ defensive prowess and the Wolverine’s offensive struggles.
Whether you believe that Michigan’s horrendous night, which saw them score 50 points and shoot 39.1% from the floor in the first 38 minutes, was evidence that the Blue Devils have turned a corner on the defensive end or is proof-positive that the Wolverines aren’t going to be a factor in the Big Ten title race probably depends on what shade of blue you’re wearing.
But what’s inarguable is that Duke put a thorough whooping on Michigan.
It was the best game that Duke has played this season.
“Definitely,” Rodney Hood said after the game. “Especially defensively.”
Which is interesting when you consider the fact that Rasheed Sulaimon took the dreaded DNP-CD: Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision. Remember, we’re talking about a guy that averaged 11.6 points as a freshman, a guy that many expected to be an explosive No. 3 scoring option for the Blue Devils this season. He was supposed to be another weapon is what is a lethal offensive attack for Mike Krzyzewski.
Except he hasn’t been.
Sulaimon scored 33 points in his first two games this season, but has been a non-factor over the course of the six games leading into Monday night. He was 6-for-28 (21.4%) from the floor during that stretch, hitting just 1-for-9 from three and averaging just 4.0 points. “He has to play better than the guys who played tonight,” Krzyzewski in his press conference last night.
“As a man, he has to step up and accept what he needs to do,” Tyler Thornton said to Laura Keeley of the Raleigh News & Observer. “We need him. That’s all I can really say about that.”
“He knows what he needs to do, I don’t really want to speak on that. He has a week and a half until our next game. We have a lot of practice time. Hopefully we can get what we need out of him in that span.”
“It’s basketball,” senior guard Andre Dawkins said. “Everybody who plays shooting guard has had a DNP already this year. It’s what happens when you have this deep of a team, sometimes guys just aren’t going to play. It doesn’t mean we don’t need him to be good or to help us out.”
Dawkins’ answer is interesting.
He’s had his own trials and tribulations as a member of the Blue Devils. He was essentially told to take last season off by the Duke staff as he dealt with the grief of losing his sister. He returned this season, posting some big numbers in games against teams like UNC-Asheville, Vermont and Florida Atlantic. But he didn’t play against Kansas. He managed all of 12 minutes in two games at the Garden last week. He’s been pushed way down the bench this season, but he also stepped up and made the two biggest shots of the game last night.
Michigan had chipped the lead all the way down to 46-40 and had the momentum midway through the second half. You could feel it in the building; the Wolverines were going to make this a game. And then, BOOM, Dawkins comes in cold off the bench and buries a three on his first touch. On the next possession, BOOM, he drills another three to put Duke up 12. He added a running layup a minute later, which all but sealed Michigan’s fate.
Those were the two biggest shots of the game.
Duke’s other two off-guards, Thornton and freshman Matt Jones, finished with just eight points in 38 combined minutes, but they were just as valuable as Dawkins. Duke’s game-plan defensively was to take away Nik Stauskas first and foremost, worrying about the rest of Michigan’s roster after they ran the Canadian gun-slinger off the three-point line and limited his driving lanes at the rim.
Thornton and Jones drew that assignment. Stauskas played 34 minutes and finished 0-for-2 from the floor.
Coach K can’t ask for much more out of his off-guards, and that’s a massive problem for Sulaimon.
The bottom-line is that Duke’s offensive is going to run through Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. That’s not changing. Quinn Cook has proven that he’s more than capable of being a third-option offensively. Don’t believe? Last night, with Parker and Hood struggling, Cook exploded for 24 points and nine assists, doing most of his damage after halftime.
Quite frankly, Duke doesn’t need Sulaimon to be “Rasheed Sulaimon”. They need an off-guard willing to guy into a role. They need a lockdown defender that can knock down threes. If Sulaimon is unwilling to buy into that role, the three-headed monster of Thornton, Jones and Dawkins have proven themselves to be more than capable.
If he doesn’t want to play that role, then he doesn’t want to play.
Duke looks like they’ll be just fine.