DURHAM — Mason Plumlee has carried Duke throughout his senior season and become the kind of productive leader – on and off the floor – that is endearing to Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. Yet it was a freshman, Plumlee said Wednesday, who was perhaps most responsible for leading Duke into the Sweet 16.
“I don’t think we win – we don’t win – if Rasheed doesn’t play like he did against Creighton,” Plumlee said.
He was referring to Rasheed Sulaimon, the freshman guard who scored 21 points during Duke’s 66-50 victory against Creighton in the third round of the NCAA tournament. It was Sulaimon’s highest-scoring game since he scored a career-high 27 points in a home victory against Boston College on Feb. 24.
Entering the postseason, Sulaimon had been struggling after a productive regular season. He scored 19 points in Duke’s final four regular season games, and Krzyzewski took him out of the starting lineup just before the NCAA tournament.
Sulaimon’s reemergence, then, might have come as a pleasant surprise for the Blue Devils. His 21 points represented the third time this season that he scored at least 20. More important, his contributions came when Duke most needed them, with its season at stake.
Sulaimon will be asked to play a key role again Friday in Indianapolis, where Duke faces Michigan State in the Midwest Region semifinals. Sulaimon could be matched up defensively with Spartans freshman guard Gary Harris, whose average of 13.1 points per game ranks second on his team.
About a year ago, Sulaimon and Harris shared a court at the McDonald’s All-American game. Now they’re playing similar roles for their teams, and coming off of similar games. Harris scored a career-high 23 in Michigan State’s victory against Memphis last weekend.
Their playing styles contrast, though, as Kryzewski noted Wednesday.
“I think they’re two very different players,” Krzyzewski said. “Harris is a great player. Harris is an outstanding shooter. He’s one of the better shooters in the country, and an excellent athlete. He reminds me a little bit of like an Eric Gordon, and Rasheed is a different type of player. Rasheed’s an outstanding player, too.”
But he wasn’t at his best toward the end of the regular season, which is one reason Krzyzewski briefly changed lineups. Sulaimon, who has started 31 games, didn’t start Duke’s regular season-ending victory at North Carolina. Nor did he start the Blue Devils’ loss against Maryland in the ACC tournament.
No Duke player performed particularly well in that game, though Sulaimon finished with 16 points. Krzyzewski reinserted him into the starting lineup when the NCAA tournament began, and his contributions Sunday are a key reason why Duke has made it to this point.
It hasn’t only been scoring, either. When asked Wednesday what most pleased him about Sulaimon’s play against Creighton, Krzyzewski started with rebounding and finished with defense.
“I just thought he played like a veteran,” Krzyzewski said. “He played like a veteran. In a big-time atmosphere. And he had a critical matchup in the game – (Grant) Gibbs, because Gibbs was their leading assist man, and was kind of like a point wing for them. He had like 200 assists for the season.
“And I thought (Sulaimon) did a great job on him, while still providing offense. So it was a very good performance.”
It came at just the right time, too, with some of Duke’s leading scorers struggling amid foul trouble. Plumlee scored 10 points in 27 minutes before fouling out late. Senior forward Ryan Kelly finished with just one point – and four fouls – after missing all five attempts from the field.
That wasn’t the first time that Sulaimon has made important shots or led the Blue Devils in scoring. But those things were firsts for him in the NCAA tournament, and since reentering the starting lineup.
“I think he’s just getting back to where he was,” Plumlee said. “He was pulled out of the lineup there for a little bit, and I think he’s just getting that confidence back."
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter