On Dec. 3, Duke won at Wisconsin in a showdown of top five teams. The margin was 10 points but the visitors' performance was far more convincing than that, with the Blue Devils entering a stifling Kohl Center and demonstrating a maturity that belied the age of several key players. On that night it seemed silly to put a ceiling on what this team might accomplish, because Duke appeared to have the capacity to blow it off and make you start building a new one all over again.
On Sunday, the players slipped commemorative T-shirts over their jerseys and mobbed Mike Krzyzewski on the Madison Square Garden floor to revel in their coach’s landmark 1,000th career win. It was a swirl of joy and relief, what with a boulder-sized burden unlashed and sent rolling away. The recent, startling consecutive losses to N.C. State and Miami notwithstanding, a team freed of an urgency to make history once again seemed poised to reach its potential.
And then came 4:25 p.m. ET on Thursday: That’s when the announcement came that Duke had kicked junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon off the team. It was less than a day after the Blue Devils fell to 4-3 and to sixth place in the ACC with a road loss at Notre Dame. It was two days before a game at undefeated, second-ranked Virginia that could drop Duke to .500 in league play.
It was time to stop assuming the Blue Devils had no ceiling and time to start wondering where the bottom was.
The most generous reading of Sulaimon's dismissal would be this: Krzyzewski tossed out a player with whom he always seemed to have an uneven relationship – recall that Sulaimon was benched against Michigan last year – and perhaps that has removed a caustic element from the operation. It’s not an academic issue, Duke said in its release. And when you read Krzyzewski’s official statement on this, you left impressed that the person taking dictation could make out the words spat through clenched teeth.
“Rasheed has been unable to consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program,” Krzyzewski said. “It is a privilege to represent Duke University and with that privilege comes the responsibility to conduct oneself in a certain manner. After Rasheed repeatedly struggled to meet the necessary obligations, it became apparent that it was time to dismiss him from the program.”
Duke fans can take comfort in the fact that their team has still won 17 of its 20 games this season and that Jahlil Okafor is still around. But that won’t mute their real concerns. The Blue Devils now have just eight available scholarship players. A so-so defensive team (50th nationally in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com) has lost a capable veteran stopper whose 19.3 minutes per game will, at least in part, likely go to a seldom-used freshman in Grayson Allen. While Sulaimon was effectively a role player who averaged a career-low 7.7 points per game, and while he had struggled recently by missing 30 of his last 45 shots over the past six games, he was deeply involved when he was on the floor. His usage rate of 21.8 percent tied with Justise Winslow for second on the team. Sulaimon averaged only 7.5 points per game but his overall effective field goal percentage was 50.4, a healthy enough number. This was a guy Duke counted on, in some way, to a measurable degree.
And now he’s been dismissed outright, with the Blue Devils’ conference title hopes already wobbly and two more games with two ranked teams looming in short order: Virginia on Saturday, and then a rematch with Notre Dame at Cameron Indoor Stadium a week later.
After that their schedule has only two games against ranked foes, both versus North Carolina, so the ACC road before the Blue Devils is not entirely rutted. But resorting to that for optimism sort of proves the point: Not even two months ago, this season wasn’t about Duke surviving in conference play. It was about dominating the league and proving to be a viable challenger to Kentucky’s presumed supremacy in college basketball.
There is enough talent in Durham to match just about any other team. And Duke was already desperate heading into the weekend, so this can only stoke any cornered-animal reaction the team might have already had in Charlottesville on Saturday night. But with Sulaimon gone, there is increasingly little for Krzyzewski to rely upon beyond that formidable first five.
It’s reckless to count the Blue Devils out. But it’s delusional not to look up Thursday and realize that the ceiling looks a lot closer than it did not too long ago.