College Basketball Nation: Rasheed Sulaimon

This week will feature a position-by-position look at players to watch for the 2014-15 season.

The term "shooting guard" has never been so meaningless.

[+] EnlargeRon Baker, Jeremy Morgan
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallWichita State guard Ron Baker averaged 13.1 points per game in 2013-14.
This is true of all of the game's positional designations; the traditional responsibilities associated with each spot on the floor have become less and less helpful in describing what players actually do. The old traditional conception of the shooting guard is the most outdated. The Reggie Miller/Rip Hamilton run-off-screens-and-get-open model is gone. The NBA is now a league full of small guards who drive and shoot first; perimeter shooting is considered a must-have tool in a pro guard's total package; off-guards must handle the ball; small forwards are knockdown shooters. The Venn diagram of perimeter skills looks more like an eclipse.

Everything in the NBA trickles down, which makes today's exercise -- an early list of shooting guards to watch in the 2014-15 season -- a difficult one. There might be some slight cheating involved (you'll see). Some of the below are traditional shooting guards; some are just guards. All will be fascinating to watch in 2014-15 for a variety of reasons.

Top returnees to watch

Ron Baker, Wichita State: The Shockers return both members of their starting backcourt from 2013-14, and Baker and Fred VanVleet actually do fit the traditional mold. VanVleet was a masterful pass-first point guard who steadily anchored WSU's offense; Baker attempted 179 3s and 141 2s and finished with a 120.9 offensive rating. If you're wondering why the Shockers can lose Cleanthony Early and still be the subject of huge expectations going forward, look no further.

Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke: It's a bit hard to believe that after a stellar freshman campaign Sulaimon found himself so deep in Mike Krzyzewski's doghouse that, in early December, Coach K buried him on the bench in the equivalent of a DNP-CD. Transfer rumors and status questions abounded. Sulaimon eventually earned his way out of purgatory and back into regular minutes, and when he did he flourished. In his junior season, Sulaimon and Quinn Cook will have to take on leadership roles alongside the most talented Duke class in decades -- one with Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow ready to gobble up perimeter minutes. It's a huge season on deck for Sulaimon.

Michael Frazier II, Florida: Frazier is that rarest of modern college hoops birds: a traditional, almost literal, shooting guard. In 2013-14, Frazier shot 264 3s and made 118 of them, good for 44.7 percent -- a sterling percentage at that volume. He attempted exactly 79 shots from inside the arc. Frazier is an old-school, lights-out catch-and-shoot guy, albeit one who might need to expand his game in a Florida offense that will lose Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Patric Young. But he's already the college game's best pure shooter, and that's a hugely valuable skill to have.

Aaron Harrison, Kentucky: Harrison, on the other hand, is a fantastic example of a player for whom the term shooting guard doesn't always quite fit. Despite a torrid postseason pace -- and those big-time clutch shots in Kentucky's surprise runner-up run -- Harrison finished the season having made just 62 of his 174 3s. That's not terrible, but it's not great, either. The presence of Harrison's twin brother, Andrew, as Kentucky's ostensible point guard drives the lack of distinction home. Still, Harrison's fundamental productivity -- and the odds of him improving his shot, and keeping defenders off balance, after a summer spent drilling in Lexington, Kentucky -- makes him as frightening a sophomore prospect as any player in the country.

Caris LeVert, Michigan: Was Nik Stauskas a shooting guard? Not really, which is why NBA scouts love him so much: As a sophomore, Stauskas flashed all of the Stephen Curry-esque tools (lights-out shooting, penetration work, athleticism and great passing) in a 6-foot-6 frame. Stauskas has NBA people all worked up, and understandably so. LeVert is a similar player. He's an excellent shooter whom coach John Beilein loves to run through pick-and-roll sets; according to Synergy an almost identical number of LeVert's possessions came in spot-ups (24.5 percent) as screen-and-roll plays (24.3). LeVert shot 40.8 percent from 3, 46 percent from 2, didn't turn the ball over often, and will get a ton of shots without Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III around this season. He has huge, Big Ten Player of the Year-level potential in his third year in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Top newcomers to watch

[+] EnlargeD'Angelo Russell
Kelly Kline/adidasTop-ranked shooting guard D'Angelo Russell, who is ranked No. 13 in the ESPN 100, could provide instant offense for the Buckeyes.
Rodney Purvis, Connecticut: OK, so this is kind of cheating: Purvis is a transfer, not a recruit. But I had to sneak him in here somewhere, because he might end up being the most important player on the list. With a post-national title Shabazz Napier graduating this spring, a suddenly starry Ryan Boatright can slide over to the point guard spot, allowing plenty of room for Purvis -- whom UConn coach Kevin Ollie called a "Ferrari sitting in the garage" at the Final Four in April -- to get big minutes and lots of touches in his first season in Storrs, Connecticut. How that configuration works may be the difference between another scrappy national title contender and an understandable step back in Ollie's third year.

D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State: The top-ranked shooting guard in the class of 2014 arrives at OSU with a reputation for sweet shooting and deep range. The timing is perfect, because another offense-free season like last season might drive coach Thad Matta over the edge.

Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall: The best recruit Seton Hall has signed in … wait, don't answer that … Whitehead is a physical scorer who explodes to the rim and absorbs contact while there. He could make Seton Hall's season really interesting for the first time in a while.

Devin Booker, Kentucky: The return of the Harrisons shrank Booker's minutes by a big margin; the fact that he might be the fourth guy off Kentucky's bench tells you all you need to know about next season's Wildcats.

James Blackmon Jr., Indiana: Indiana's wealth of perimeter talent gets Lannister-esque with the addition of Blackmon; whether the Hoosiers will have anybody to play on the low block is a different and more pertinent question.

Five things: Mercer upsets Duke

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Mercer’s student section started the game with chants of “I believe that we will win,” and the No. 14-seeded Bears followed suit with a 78-71 victory over No. 3 seed Duke in the 2014 NCAA tournament’s biggest upset so far.

Here are five thoughts from the game:
  • This is why experience matters. Mercer started five seniors against Duke. They were not intimidated by the Duke name or playing on the big stage of the NCAA tournament. The trio of Jakob Gollon, Langston Hall and Daniel Coursey carried the Bears offensively. Gollon had 20 points, Coursey 17, and Hall 11 points and five assists. Mercer never strayed from its game plan even as Duke seemed to gain control late in the first half. Trailing by seven with five minutes left in the half, the Bears responded and trailed just 35-34 at halftime.
  • With first-time NCAA tournament participants Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker struggling -- they scored a combined 20 points -- junior Quinn Cook and sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon took control offensively for the Blue Devils. Cook hadn’t shown as much emotion and confidence since early in the season. He set a new career high with seven 3-pointers, and his 23 points were the most he’d scored since netting 24 against Michigan on Dec. 3. Sulaimon nearly matched Cook’s efficiency from behind the arc with five 3-pointers of his own and finished with 20 points.
  • It was strange to see both Parker and Hood struggle the way they did in the same game. The duo combined to shoot 6-of-24 from the field. Mercer’s Gollon, a 6-foot-6 senior, kept Hood from driving and scoring in the lane. Mercer coach Bob Hoffman sprinkled in the use of zone, which kept Coursey, a 6-10 senior, stalking Parker nearby and kept Parker from scoring in the post. The result coaxed Parker and Hood into taking more jumpers than usual and led to their low shooting percentage.
  • Ike Nwamu's lift from off the bench cannot be underestimated for Mercer. He didn’t score a single point in the second half, but his 11 points in the first kept the Bears from fading when Duke got its offense together.
  • Duke’s lack of an inside presence finally caught up to it. The Blue Devils had no one to protect the rim -- Mercer outscored them in points in the paint 26-10 en route to shooting 55.6 percent from the floor. Duke had no one to throw to in the post for high-percentage baskets.

Five things: ACC championship game

March, 16, 2014
Mar 16

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Virginia matched its ACC regular-season championship with a conference tournament title after a 72-63 win over Duke on Sunday. It may have also put an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed in play for the Cavaliers, but for now they’ll savor winning just their second ACC tournament title ever.

Here are five observations from Virginia's win over Duke:
  • Need any more proof that the Cavaliers are for real? They have the three areas that generally lead to long NCAA tournament runs, starting with a tough defense that held Duke below 40 percent shooting from the field. They also have a playmaking point guard in London Perrantes. And they have multiple go-to players in Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris for those close-game situations where they absolutely have to have a basket. Brogdon almost single-handedly disproved the theory that the Cavs can't score. He led the team with 23 points and always had an answer when the Blue Devils were making a charge.
  • Jabari Parker is being way more assertive than earlier in the season. At one point in the second half, the freshman forward scored eight straight points for the Blue Devils. One basket came when he stole an entry pass in the post and took it coast-to-coast for a dunk. The next possession he followed with a 3-pointer and -- what’s becoming his trademark -- kissed his fingers. He finished with 23 points but was just 9-of-24 shooting from the field.
  • It’s tough to get to the rim against the Cavaliers. It seems like few teams protect the basket better without a dominant 7-footer in the middle. (Mike Tobey is 6-foot-11 but is not exactly an intimidator.) Their rotations are always timely, and Akil Mitchell and Anthony Gill will surprise you with their shot-blocking ability. Parker and Rodney Hood are used to driving and scoring around the rim, but they found the going a lot tougher against the Cavs.
  • That said, Mitchell could have easily been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. At one point in the first half, Parker squared him up and attempted to shoot a jumper, but Mitchell blocked the shot with his left hand. In the first half, Parker found the going so tough against Mitchell that he resorted to shooting jumpers.
  • Duke sorely needs a consistent backcourt scorer to emerge. With Parker and Hood struggling from the floor, the Blue Devils didn’t have a third option to take over the scoring. Rasheed Sulaimon was held to two points and Quinn Cook had five. Andre Dawkins did have nine off the bench, but Duke will need more in the NCAA tournament.

Duke, Virginia keep focus within

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The possibility remains that the winner of Virginia and Duke in the ACC tournament title game will produce a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Yet neither team wanted any part of that discussion.

Both teams have maintained an edge by keeping their focus within.

Only Quinn Cook readily answered that the Blue Devils were deserving of a top seed if they claim a record 20th ACC tournament title on Sunday. His teammates were all eager to deflect the question after their 75-67 win over NC State in the semifinals.

“You know me coming from Mississippi, I’m not sure how all the seeds and stuff works,” joked Duke forward Rodney Hood. “I’m just happy to be playing for a championship right now.”

The Cavaliers are happy too, they just won’t let anyone know it. Cue the Aretha Franklin sock-it-to-mes. They’re too busy feeling disrespected.

[+] EnlargeQuinn Cook
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesQuinn Cook and the Blue Devils aren't worried about their NCAA tournament seed. They are focused solely on Virginia and the ACC title game.
Despite holding the league’s regular-season title and the league’s top seed in the ACC tournament, the Cavs play like they’re still out to prove something. No one can tell them that they already have because it’s what works for them. Virginia has a Jordanesque way of picking out perceived slights.

“We always talk about at the hotels and in our houses, it’s funny because we’re doing well and we’re never on ESPN, we never have our own tab on ESPN,” said Virginia sophomore Justin Anderson. “It’s easy to understand that we’re still the underdog and that’s where we want to be. We don’t have any McDonald’s All-Americans. We don’t have any guys who came out top five in the country. We’re just a bunch of blue-collar guys who want to work together to achieve something great.”

That may be the case, but Duke’s Amile Jefferson promised the Cavs have gotten five-star treatment within the conference.

“I don’t think anyone in our league would overlook them or doubt how good they are,” Jefferson said. “They’re an amazing basketball club -- they won our league. I think they deserve all the respect because they’re a really good team.”

The Cavs claimed their first outright conference title since 1981. Some wondered how legitimate their title was this season because of the league’s unbalanced schedule. Virginia only played the league’s other top four teams once each.

Should they beat the Blue Devils it would be just their second ACC tournament title. They won their first in 1976.

“It’s been a while,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “There’s only one, right? You can ask our [beat] writers that we’ve won one and I get reminded of that quite a bit.”

See what he did there?

Bennett gets reminded of that one title. His pregame speech is practically written for him. If that wasn’t enough, Bennett said he received a text from Wally Walker, who was the team captain on that ‘76 title team whose message said, “We want some company.”

The way Duke players sounded, their regular-season win over the Cavs on Jan. 13 was an eternity ago.

Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon hit a go-ahead 3-pointer that needed a friendly bounce before going in the basket with 22 seconds left. He went so far to call it “irrelevant” in relation to Sunday’s title game. But the win was arguably the turning point for the Blue Devils’ season.

They had just lost road games at Clemson and Notre Dame when returning home to face Virginia. They nearly blew a 13-point lead in the final eight minutes, but held on for a 69-65 win.

“We were coming off being 1-2, a disappointing loss to Clemson,” Cook said. “I think we were fighting for our life.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in his postgame interview against the Cavs that his team should be judged by how it played from that moment forward. Outside of an inexplicable loss at Wake Forest, the Blue Devils have been consistently good since.

Sulaimon said Duke was still trying to find out who it was back then.

“We know everybody’s strengths and weaknesses and we know what we have to do to be successful now,” Sulaimon said. “... We had a tremendous amount of growth since that time, but that was two months ago so I’m pretty sure Virginia has too.”

While that sounds like respect, Virginia probably won’t let it play out that way. Anderson said the loss to Duke, “was the game that definitely crushed my heart.”

Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon added it didn’t matter how much they’ve won, they play better when they find an angle.

“I think so, that’s what we pride ourselves on and that’s how we try to play every game regardless of how far we go in whatever tournament or in the ACC,” Brogdon said. “We try to pride ourselves in having a chip and being hungry every game.”

Duke anticipating much-needed break

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25

DURHAM, N.C. -- Since Feb. 15, Duke has played more games than the Los Angeles Lakers have, and the Lakers don’t have to return to a campus for class.

The Blue Devils capped off a five-game, 11-day stretch with Tuesday’s 66-48 win over Virginia Tech. Now, even though only two games remain in the regular season, Duke needs a breather. It was evident when the Blue Devils took the court for warmups before playing the Hokies.

"When we came back in [the locker room], the coaches got us pretty good because we didn’t look like we were ready to go out there and fight," forward Rodney Hood said. "We’ve got to be prepared for that. In the ACC tournament, you can play three or four games in three or four days, so it’s no excuse to be tired. I think it’s taxing on us, but we have to be ready and get rejuvenated for the next week."

While the Blue Devils refresh physically, it will also finally give them time to reflect inward. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he’s spent so much time preparing for opponents, he could use some time to look at his team before making a postseason push.

"We’re always preparing for another team, so you don’t take as good a look at you," he said.

Duke will get a week off before facing Wake Forest on March 5. Senior guard Tyler Thornton said that he’d never experienced anything like the grueling stretch that included emotional games against Maryland, Syracuse and North Carolina.

[+] EnlargeDuke
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsRasheed Sulaimon and Duke looked sluggish offensively against Virginia Tech, shooting only 38 percent.
Sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon admitted fatigue was a bit of a factor, as Duke shot just 38 percent against the Hokies. They’ll get plenty of rest the next two days, with Krzyzewski saying the team will have only a short meeting on Wednesday and take Thursday off before returning to practice on Friday.

"After this stretch we have off, hopefully, we’ll have our legs back where we can start knocking down those shots like we were in the beginning of the year," Thornton said.

Krzyzewski said he’d take a second look into his rotation. Sulaimon has started the past four games in place of Quinn Cook at point guard, and it appears he’ll stay in the starting lineup.

Krzyzewski said the starters have developed a really good chemistry, and now his challenge will be how he handles bringing players off the bench.

Early in conference play, Krzyzewski’s solution was to use a lot of players and make hockey-style line changes. Heading into the postseason, that’s a thing of the past.

"We’re not going to just sub five guys," Krzyzewski said. "There’s got to be a rotation, especially after these next few games. You get to tournament play, Jabari [Parker] and Rodney [Hood] have to be out on the court. Like, what are you resting them for?"

While Krzyzewski managed the five-game stretch, he was forced to use center Marshall Plumlee more to help keep players fresh. The 7-foot sophomore has earned more time moving forward after several solid appearances, including five rebounds and three blocks against Syracuse.

It’s the veterans who haven’t performed as expected.

Andre Dawkins had scored double figures in four of five games before the stretch of games started. He hasn’t in the five games since, scoring a total of 19 points. Cook’s shooting has been inconsistent but his defense stellar.

"We need to get Andre shooting again," Krzyzewski said. "During this period, Andre has not been a big factor, and he should be a bigger factor. Quinn should be a bigger factor."

Duke needs a consistent third scorer to emerge from Sulaimon, Dawkins and Cook. The later into March the Blue Devils get, the more teams will key on stopping Parker and Hood and dare other players to carry the offensive load.

"We’re the main two ingredients in our offense," Parker said. "If we get that extra boost, that extra weapon out on the floor, like an Andre, like a Rasheed or even a Quinn, the sky is the limit, and [opponents] are forced to look at other people, too."

Offense hasn’t been an area the Blue Devils have struggled in this season, even when a third scorer has been lacking, but Cook said that rebounding and defense needs to be the focus in the last two regular-season games.

"Those two things win championships," Cook said. "The offense will take care of itself. If we keep playing defense and rebounding -- all five guys rebounding -- I feel that we could be special."

Carolina vs. Duke: The key matchups

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20

Here's a look at the individual matchups that could determine Thursday night's game between North Carolina and Duke:

McAdoo vs. Parker

James Michael McAdoo is coming off his worst game of the season. He fouled out scoreless having played just 13 minutes in Monday's win over Florida State. If the Kentucky game was any indication, McAdoo will be up for facing Jabari Parker. McAdoo rendered Kentucky’s Julius Randle, another highly-touted freshman, a non-factor offensively during the Heels' win over the Wildcats.

Parker will be more of a challenge because he’s more comfortable stepping out on the perimeter than Randle. McAdoo may want Parker to drift out, however, as Parker has scored more than 20 points in three of Duke’s last four games while making more of a concerted effort to stay in the paint.

“He’s taking it upon himself to get the basket, he’s posting up a lot more. That’s where he’s most effective," Duke’s Rodney Hood said of Parker. “Not saying he can’t hit a jump shot, [but in the paint] that’s where he can punish people.”

[+] EnlargeSulaimon
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDuke's Rasheed Sulaimon has the length to make scoring a little tougher for UNC point guard Marcus Paige.
Sulaimon on Paige

Rasheed Sulaimon has started three of the last four games at point and could be matched up with Marcus Paige, the Heels’ leading scorer. At 6-foot-4, Sulaimon brings a little more length than Tyler Thornton or Quinn Cook and could make scoring a little more difficult for Paige. Florida State tried the same strategy by using the 6-foot-5 Aaron Thomas on Paige. It was effective for a half until the Heels started running Paige off more screens and he lit it up with 14 points in a nine-minute span in the second half. That went right along with Paige’s recent trend of producing big in the second half after a slow start.

“I don’t let my performance in one half dictate how I feel the rest of the game. I’m usually pretty even keeled throughout the game,” Paige said. “I’m not going to let a poor shooting performance or a couple of turnovers in the first half affect my mindset for the second half because I know my teammates are counting on me to produce.”

Tokoto on Hood

J.P. Tokoto is accustomed to drawing the opponent's best wing player, having just chased around Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson for the better part of a game. Hood may be the best player Tokoto will have faced this season. Hood isn’t one-dimensional. He’s shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, yet he can put the ball on the floor and create shots on his own. Tokoto said his defensive strategy doesn't change regardless of the opponent.

“I just approach every game with the mentality that I’m going to beat him up defensively,” Tokoto said. “Not so much foul, but just kind of get into him, get the ball out of his hands, keep the ball out of his hands -- whoever it is.”

[+] EnlargeDez Wells
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsUNC's Kennedy Meeks has size on his side, but Duke's Amile Jefferson will try to counter with quickness.
Jefferson on Meeks

Kennedy Meeks played arguably his second-best game of the season against Florida State (trumped only by his Louisville performance of 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists). He scored a career-high 23 points on 11 of 12 shooting from the field, and most of those baskets were point-blank putbacks.

Duke's Amile Jefferson, meanwhile, has been outsized all season. He’s listed as 6-foot-9, 210 pounds. Meeks is listed at 6-foot-9, 290 pounds.

“For me it’s about fighting the other guy because a lot of times they’re bigger, stronger, height-wise,” Jefferson said. “For me it’s about using my quickness to beat them up and down the floor length, on offense and defense. Really it’s just about fighting the entire game, making sure they feel me every possession.”

McDonald & Cook vs. Slumps

Carolina’s Leslie McDonald and Duke’s Cook are fighting similar slumps. McDonald has made just two of his last 15 from 3-point range and is 8 of 31 from the field since scoring a season-high 20 points against NC State on Feb. 1.

“He’s a phenomenal shooter from outside. We need him, and he knows that,” McAdoo said. “We’re not going to put too much pressure on him because as you’ve seen, we are still capable. But hopefully [against Duke] his shot is falling. When he is on, he’s just another great player, an added dimension.”

Cook’s recent performance against Maryland highlighted his inconsistencies. It was the only game this season that he didn’t record an assist, and he also had three turnovers. He played a season-low 14 minutes in the game.

If either player can emerge in this game, it could be a huge boost for his respective team.

The X-factors

  • Carolina’s Brice Johnson just posted his second double-double of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds against Florida State. Johnson could see extended minutes if the Heels are hurt by Duke pulling its five out to the perimeter on pick-and-rolls. Johnson is better suited to defend it than Meeks or Joel James.
  • Duke’s Andre Dawkins shoots like every shot is going in and was a big factor off the bench when he scored a season-high 20 in the Blue Devils' win at Pittsburgh in late January.

Blue Devils look like a new team of late

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
When the Duke Blue Devils meet the North Carolina Tar Heels on Wednesday, the Blue Devils will be a much improved team compared to a month ago.

Since a loss at Clemson on January 11, Duke has won seven of its last eight games with the only loss coming by two points in overtime at undefeated Syracuse.

The Blue Devils are now a completely different team. They have the most efficient offense in the country over the last month, averaging 128.5 points per 100 possessions.

They're grabbing more offensive rebounds, defending the post better, relying more on outside shooting, and using a deeper rotation. And Jabari Parker is playing like a star.

Here's a closer look at Duke's improvements.

Jabari Parker
After hitting a rough patch in the middle of the season where he averaged just 11 points per game on 32 percent shooting over a five-game stretch, Parker is dominating once again.

In his last seven games, Parker is averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds per game on 48 percent shooting.

During that span, 73 percent of his field-goal attempts have come in the paint. He’s scoring 12 paint points per game compared to three paint points per game in his previous four games.

Offensive Rebounding
Duke is grabbing 44 percent of its own misses over its last seven games, compared to an offensive rebound percentage below 30 percent in its first 17 games. The Blue Devils are averaging 16 offensive boards per game in the last seven games.

Their improved offensive rebounding has led to five more points per game on offensive rebound putbacks in the Blue Devils' last seven games compared to their first 17 games.

Post Defense
Using a smaller lineup that often included four guards and wing players along with one big man hurt the Blue Devils early in the season in terms of interior defense. But recently, the Blue Devils have improved their post defense.

Over their last seven games, they're holding teams to 37 percent shooting on post-up plays, compared to 52 percent shooting on post-up plays in their first 17 games.

Some of that has to do with Parker's much improved post defense, as he often has to guard an opposing big man. After allowing 64 percent shooting and 1.15 points per post-up play in his first 16 games, opponents are shooting just 22 percent and averaging 0.50 points per post-up play in his last eight games.

Outside Shooting
Duke has been on fire from beyond the arc lately. In the last four games, Duke is shooting 47 percent on 3-pointers and making 13 of them per game.

Much of their outside shooting success lately is thanks to Andre Dawkins and Rasheed Sulaimon. Dawkins is shooting 57 percent on 3-pointers in his last five games, and Sulaimon is shooting 55 percent on threes in his last eight games.

Deeper Rotation
Playing time for Dawkins and Sulaimon early in the season was inconsistent. Each of them even sat out an entire game at one point.

Lately, Dawkins and Sulaimon -- along with Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee -- have gotten more playing time.

Jefferson and Plumlee have helped improve Duke's rebounding and defense. Dawkins and Sulaimon have helped the Blue Devils' outside shooting. Sulaimon has also taken on more of a ball-handler role, averaging 4.4 assists per game in his last eight games compared to 1.5 per game in his first 15 games.

Dawkins, Sulaimon, Jefferson and Plumlee combined are averaging 20 more minutes per game compared to the first 16 games.

During that span, the foursome is contributing 11 more points, two more offensive boards, 4 more assists, and two more 3-pointers per game.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Surely you didn’t expect Duke to lose at home to Virginia.

No matter how odd it is seeing Duke in the bottom fifth of the polls and in the bottom half of the ACC standings, let’s not get carried away with its demise.

“Losing here is not a good feeling, it’s like a gloomy cloud over Durham every time we lose,” Duke guard Quinn Cook said. “Everybody was against us. I don’t think that nobody believed that we could win today because those guys are a great team.”

The Blue Devils have always been capable of pulling out a 69-65 win at home like they did against the Cavs on Monday. We shouldn’t get too carried away with proclaiming the Blue Devils back, either.

The Cavaliers, despite entering the day tied for first place in the ACC standings with Syracuse and Pittsburgh, lost for the 16th straight time in Cameron Indoor Stadium dating back to Jan. 14, 1995.

“We lost two games and we haven’t been playing well as a ballclub,” Duke forward Jabari Parker said. “To get to play one of the top three teams in the ACC and beat them just brings us back to where we want to be.”

The fact that the Cavs are even a measuring stick should be a red flag. This is the same Virginia team that lost by 35 at Tennessee.

If Duke’s two league losses at Notre Dame and at Clemson didn’t prove it to be a flawed team, then surely Virginia’s rally from down 13 did. The Cavs trailed the entire game until taking a one-point lead with 38 seconds left.

[+] EnlargeDuke
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeRasheed Sulaimon scored a season-high 21 points to lead Duke.
It was short-lived, as Amile Jefferson tied his career high by rebounding a Rodney Hood miss. His job being to rebound and redirect, Jefferson kicked the ball back out and the sequence ended with Rasheed Sulaimon scoring the go-ahead basket when he got a friendly bounce on a 3-pointer.

Jefferson set his career high with his 15th rebound after a Joe Harris miss that could have tied the game with four seconds left.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Jefferson “an animal” for scrapping to get seemingly every rebound.

“The last few seconds [he] just willed us to win,” Krzyzewski said. “That was one of the great sequences that I’ve seen.”

And that is one of the sequences he expects to see much more of from Duke moving forward.

Krzyzewski revealed he hadn’t gotten over his brother’s passing on Dec. 26 and all but promised the Blue Devils would be a different team from now on.

“We haven’t been at our best since the start of conference and I haven’t been at my best since Christmas,” he said. “That’s my responsibility. I’ve been knocked back and today we weren’t knocked back.”

Krzyzewski said he needed to be more observant of his team. He said part of the reason why the Blue Devils were getting dominated by opposing frontcourts was fatigue. That changed against Virginia.

He substituted entire lineups throughout the game to keep players fresh. Cook joked, “It felt like my Little League team.”

But the Blue Devils knew the stakes were big.

That’s why Krzyzewski extolled the crowd to make noise when coming out of a first-half timeout. It’s why Tyler Thornton grabbed Sulaimon and hugged him during a lineup change, happy for his fast start. It’s why Andre Dawkins nearly choked Jefferson in a headlock on the bench after his game-saving rebounds in the final seconds.

“It was a pretty emotional game -- for some personal reasons, but also for this team,” said Sulaimon, who scored a season-high 21 points. “It was a must-win. We had to protect Cameron.”

Duke played with a sense of urgency that it lacked in its road losses. Thornton said no one had to make a stirring speech or discuss how important the game was. They all knew their record and the league standings.

“We at the bottom of the league, 1-2, that was the facts,” Thornton said. “We had no other option but to come out here and get a win.”

Jefferson, he of constantly undersized battles in the post, emerged from the game with his jersey ripped down the right side. He said the game was symbolic of the team’s renewed sense of urgency.

“Tonight was us starting to fight as Duke and as one unit and we need everybody, tonight was a team win,” Jefferson said. “You can’t look at the scoreboard and say one person carried us, it was everyone. Everyone came in the minutes they played, fought and played hard and I think that’s something we have to do going forward.”

What we're reading while we avoid making literacy jokes. Submit links via Twitter.

  • With anecdotes provided by outspoken former UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham, CNN’S “Schools of Thought” series gets in on the NCAA fun:
    “Willingham's job was to help athletes who weren't quite ready academically for the work required at UNC at Chapel Hill, one of the country's top public universities. But she was shocked that one couldn't read. And then she found he was not an anomaly. Soon, she'd meet a student-athlete who couldn't read multisyllabic words … another came with this request: ‘If I could teach him to read well enough so he could read about himself in the news, because that was something really important to him,’ Willingham said. … A CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level. The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution.”
  • "I see 5,000 fans at Pauley," ESPN’s own Dick Vitale said on a conference call Wednesday, "5,000 fans at a school and team of that caliber in Southern California, that's just humiliation. I know you've got to win and produce or people aren't coming out in Hollywood, baby, with all there is to do. But are you serious? UCLA is winning, winning big and there should be excitement, enthusiasm.” Really though, you give to give folks in L.A. a pass: It has been awfully cold.
  • Creighton’s Grant Gibbs couldn’t play in the second half for the Bluejays Tuesday night, and the early worry was that he might lose the rest of his season (and thus his college career) to a knee injury. It looks now like Gibbs will be able to return, but the 4-to-6-week timeframe still presents a huge challenge in Creighton’s Big East title viability. (As I alluded to on the Spreecast this afternoon, it will also be interesting to see how Gibbs’ injury -- who is a borderline telekinetic feeder of Doug McDermott at this point -- affects McDermott’s output, if at all.)
  • My second year after college, it was so cold in Chicago that the pipes in my (old, decrepit) walkup froze. This prevented me from showering before work, and my very cool boss at the time allowed me stay home that day. I like to tell that story to boost my cold-survival credentials. Xavier forward Isaiah Philmore has got me beat.
  • Rasheed Sulaimon, once banished to the bench, is starting for Duke again.

3-point shot: Duke-UCLA observations

December, 20, 2013

Andy Katz makes three observations from Duke's win against UCLA in Madison Square Garden.

Parker puts on New York-worthy show

December, 19, 2013

NEW YORK -- New Yorkers love a good show, and the marquee at venerable Madison Square Garden promised a good one Thursday -- Duke versus UCLA, two basketball names that even the casual fan would recognize.

New Yorkers, though, aren’t easily impressed, and names alone aren’t enough to lure them into the seats on a December night.

No, the main attraction was the new college basketball sensation, the one who has all the skills and all the promise of the Garden’s usual superstar, Carmelo Anthony.

Jabari Parker is the draw here, there and everywhere he goes. He is a one-man barnstorming show, a player who somehow even manages to transcend the attraction that is Duke basketball.

They were all there to see him -- 15,410 fans, the 45 NBA scouts, Tyson Chandler and Tim Hardaway, Jr., even the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, who sat at center court alongside his daughter, Jessica, who is a Duke senior.

Everyone wanted a glimpse of Parker, save maybe the guy carrying around a teacup dog in a sweater and the rest of his displaced West Coast brethren.

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker, Kyle Anderson, Travis Wear
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsDuke's Jabari Parker gave the Madison Square Garden crowd a show with a double-double against UCLA.
“He is not afraid of the moment,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Indeed, Parker, who somehow was gifted the unusual genetic cocktail of extraordinary talent without even a dose of arrogance, has been that rarest of athletes, of stars in general, and a person who actually lives up to his hype.

Every single night.

By now Tibetan monks know that this is the Year of the Freshmen, and when they play, we must critique, fawn and debate.

There is little to critique and less to debate about Parker.

The fawning, however, continues.

In Duke’s 80-63 win over UCLA, he had 23 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. He hit 7 of 13 of his shots from the floor, 4 of 8 from behind the arc, and all five of his free throws.

The only thing he didn’t do, people even tried to credit him for. At the end of the game, it looked like he met freakishly athletic Zach LaVine at the rim to block a dunk.

But, of course, Parker came clean.

“No, no, not even close,” he said. “It just rimmed out.”

Parker now has nine games of 20-plus points. He’s played just 11 overall. On his "off" nights, he had 19 (against Arizona) and 15 (against Michigan).

“I know we’re in New York, but he has a lot of Melo in him,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “He’s very, very talented. You don’t see a lot of guys like him, playing like this 10 or 11 games into their freshmen year.”

Parker was asked about the Anthony comparison after the game and he didn’t deny it. But his answer was a nice peek into the quality of Parker as both a player and a person.

“He’s always about his fundamentals,” Parker said. “He’s someone who constantly works on his craft.”

This is a kid who, at 18, is better than many will be before they retire, yet only worries about getting better. He didn’t care about the scouts, he said. Didn’t care about the fans, though he did like the extremely pro-Duke crowd.

He just cared about playing his role and getting better on this Thursday night than he was a week ago.

“He loves to play,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a natural. In different sports there are people who are natural, and he’s a natural but he always wants to learn.”

Perhaps most astounding is that Parker can be so singularly good without being overbearing. He is not a one-man wrecking crew, nor does he have to be.

Unlike Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle, who have been burdened by their teammates' lack of performance, Parker has the luxury of taking over a game subtly, of blending in with other capable players.

Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook each had 14 against UCLA, and even better for the Blue Devils, Rasheed Sulaimon emerged from hibernation. The slumping, dog-house-dwelling guard scored eight and gave out four assists in 18 minutes, the most he’s seen since a DNP against Michigan.

And unlike Anthony, Parker has a good coach.

Krzyzewski won this game as much as his players, tweaking both his offense and defense at halftime to turn what had been a bucket-for-bucket track meet into a Duke walkover. The Blue Devils used Amile Jefferson at the high post to get easy, open looks and then took away the Bruins’ transition buckets, slowing down their pace and taking them out of their rhythm.

“We can get better obviously, but tonight was really good,” Krzyzewski said. “The second half was really good basketball by us.”

The whole game was really good basketball by Parker.

It’s what everyone came to see -- and they got what they paid for.

The scouts, the fans and even the Boss enjoyed a good show.

Asked if he knew any Bruce Springsteen songs, Parker smiled, “Nah, he’s a little before my time.”

The Boss knows Parker’s tune, though.

And it’s pretty pitch-perfect.

3-point shot: Sulaimon's status at Duke

December, 5, 2013

Andy Katz discusses Rasheed Sulaimon's status at Duke, Florida's health and a possible change in venue for the NIT.
Afternoon Links is pretty self-explanatory. Get at me to submit your own.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke’s defensive principles and concepts finally morphed from the abstract to the tangible against Michigan ON Tuesday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

It might not be the watershed game that changes the entire season, but the No. 10 Blue Devils saw what it was like to win a game by stopping a team rather than simply outscoring them. Their 79-69 win over the No. 22 Wolverines in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge had everything Duke teams generally take for granted, minus its trademark slapping of the floor.

“For a young team I think you have to see it first,” forward Rodney Hood said. “Coach is saying you’ve got to do this or you’ve got to do that, you don’t see it. … This is a big confidence boost for our defense knowing that we can shut out a great team. Well not shut out, but we can play really good defense on a great team.”

Michigan extended the game late by fouling and making baskets, scoring 19 points in the final two minutes. The Wolverines shot 56 percent in the second half, which would fool anyone who didn’t watch the game into thinking they were effective.

They weren’t.

“Even without stats, we’re playing better defensively,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We played an outstanding defensive game tonight -- not a good one -- an outstanding defensive game tonight.”

[+] EnlargeQuinn Cook
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesQuinn Cook and company hounded Nik Stauskas all night, holding Michigan's leading scorer to four points.
Michigan’s Nik Stauskas, who led the Wolverines with 20.3 points per game, did not score a basket. All four of his season-low points came from the free-throw line.

Stauskas might have still been a bit hobbled after returning from an ankle injury that kept him out of Friday’s win over Coppin State. But Duke’s Tyler Thornton and Matt Jones never lost him in transition or left him to help out in the post.

“Me and Ty made an effort not to let him catch the ball,” Jones said. I’m going out on a limb and saying it would have been hard for anybody to score the way we were focused tonight.”

Jones played a season-high 18 minutes, presumably taking minutes that Rasheed Sulaimon would have had. Sulaimon did not play, leaving Krzyzewski to say after the game that he “needed to play better than guys who played tonight.”

Duke’s glaring weakness on paper -- its interior defense -- had arguably its best effort of the season. The Blue Devils outrebounded Michigan 32-31. That might not seem like a major feat, but this is the same team that got handled on the boards by Kansas to the tune of 39-24.

“We knew we were going to be a little undersized, but we have guys who will battle,” said Duke forward Amile Jefferson, who tied Jabari Parker with a team-high six rebounds. “I think we’ve really gotten back to that each game. We’ve gotten better -- I think it showed, especially in the first half, our ability to rebound and defend.”

The Blue Devils entered the game allowing opponents to shoot 45 percent from the floor. They haven’t allowed that high of a percentage since giving up 46.7 percent in 1991-92. And like that national championship team, this team has little problem scoring. It's currently averaging 86.1 points per game, which nearly mirrors the 88.0-point average from ’92.

Hood said becoming a championship caliber team will likely be defined by how well -- or ineffective -- it is at stopping teams.

“We can score the ball, that’s not an issue,” Hood said. “We have to have that defensive mindset, and that’s what’s going to get it for us this year.”

Losses to Kansas and Arizona -- and even watching Vermont shoot 64 percent in a narrow Duke win -- proved the Blue Devils’ mortality. But the way they beat Michigan boosted confidence that they can become a better defensive team.

“We’re not a great basketball team,” Krzyzewski said. “We have great kids and they’re trying hard. We’ve got a really tough schedule; we’re just trying to get better.”

They took a major step toward that Tuesday. The Wolverines averaged better than nine 3-pointers a game, but Duke held them to a season-low three.

“We took them out of their offense, we took away their best player and we took away their 3-point shots for the most part,” Hood said. “We talked, we gang rebounded, we scrapped for loose balls. That’s what we have to do to be a great team.”

Five Things: Kansas-Duke

November, 13, 2013
Well, No. 5 Kansas defeated No. 4 Duke 94-83 in the Champions Classic matchup in Chicago on Tuesday night. But the double-digit margin is not an accurate measurement of the game’s competitiveness.

Here are five observations from the matchup:

Um, Jabari Parker: As the season approached, Parker became the third member of the Big Three recruits that the college basketball world couldn’t stop talking about. Andrew Wiggins was the superstar in a class seemingly filled with studs. Randle was the top player at Kentucky, which had one of the most talented recruiting classes in college basketball history. And Parker was the elite prospect who’d lost some of the spotlight to those two.

But before Wiggins and Randle blew up, Parker was the man in the 2013 class. And if there were any doubts about the buzz that preceded his arrival, all were silenced on Tuesday. Parker was the best player on the floor. His offensive skill set is complete. He’s courageous and bold. Three defenders met him during a fast break in the first half. Parker sidestepped them all for a fancy layup. By halftime, he’d scored 19 points and grabbed five rebounds. He added three steals and a block, too. He finished with 27 points.

Among the freshmen, Wiggins might be the most talented player. And Randle probably possesses the most potential. But Parker might be the most NBA-ready player -- not just freshman -- in the country right now. So gifted. And it showed against Kansas.

What will the critics say now about Wiggins?: When he was available -- he only played nine minutes in the first half due to foul trouble -- Wiggins’ presence was felt on the floor. He wasn’t as flashy as Parker, but he was effective. He ran the floor on fast breaks. He was versatile on defense, guarding multiple players -- sometimes on the same possession. And he was an excellent decoy. When he wasn’t making plays, he was drawing extra defenders to his side of the floor and opening up the court for others.

Perry Ellis (24 points) will see a lot of one-on-one matchups this season due to Wiggins’ presence. Big men will be forced to shift at times and give Tarik Black and Joel Embiid more room to work. He’s one of those guys who actually makes his teammates better. And that’s the point Bill Self made during Big 12 media day a few weeks ago.

“But the thing about Andrew, if you really understand ball, he'll be a guy that will impact our team in ways other than scoring points because he can do a lot of different things,” Self said at the time. “And so much of what is perceived of him, if he didn't get 22 a night or whatever it is, it will be not successful. Well, that may not happen. But he can impact in ways to help us win far more so than maybe anybody I've ever coached.”

His versatility was critical throughout the game, and his fast-break dunk with 1:17 on the game clock gave Kansas a six-point lead and disqualified Parker, who picked up his fifth foul.

I don’t know who folks want Wiggins (22 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and a block) to be. Right now, however, he’s an elite college basketball player who could be a star at the next level, too. That’s obvious. And it’s much easier to see when you appreciate him for whom he is right now.

Foul trouble played a role, but don’t blame the new rules: The Jayhawks managed to keep Duke in check in the first half even though Parker was unstoppable and they were shorthanded due to foul trouble during the first 20 minutes of the game. Black, Wiggins, Wayne Selden Jr., Jamari Traylor and Embiid all had two fouls by halftime. It was a problem for Duke, too. Parker had four fouls entering the final minutes of the game. He was hesitant on defense as a result. Tyler Thornton fouled out. Rodney Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon picked up four each, too. Duke had 29 total fouls, Kansas had 24. Was it the new rules? Somewhat. But it was also the fact that players committed the same fouls they’ve been committing for years. Can’t blame the rules for that.

Kansas had versatility that Duke lacked: The early foul trouble allowed Kansas to showcase a variety of lineups that gave Duke problems. The Jayhawks can play big with Embiid and Black inside. But Wiggins is skilled enough to play power forward, and Selden can play multiple wing slots, too. A lot of teams would have crumbled with their big men facing the foul trouble that the Jayhawks’ post players had in the first half on Tuesday. But Kansas adjusted with a smaller lineup. That versatility will be a problem for any team it faces this season.

What a night : Kentucky stormed back against Michigan State in the first game. And Kansas versus Duke wasn’t decided until the final minutes. The elite freshmen lived up to the hype. The games were exciting. And the Champions Classic was a great way to kick off the 2013-14 college basketball season. Can we do this again? Tomorrow?