INDIANAPOLIS — The Blue Devils had already had their NCAA-mandated, 10-minute cooling-off period, giving them time to absorb the reality of their season-ending loss, but Rasheed Sulaimon was still visibility upset when the doors opened for the media. A white towel dotted with NCAA logos was draped over his head.
Before the horde of cameras, recorders and notebooks converged on him, Quinn Cook got out of his chair, put his hands on Sulaimons shoulders and leaned in close to whisper a few words of encouragement.
Im his big brother, Cook said, So I was giving him encouragement and just telling him that Im there for him.
A year from now, perhaps that scene will be the looked at as the foundation for the 2013-14 team.
Cook and Sulaimon will be the only returning starters for next years Blue Devils, and, if all goes according to plan, Cook will be the Blue Devils on-court leader, directing all the athleticism that will be on the floor. He will need to pick his teammates up when theyre down, as he did with Sulaimon Sunday night.
All the guys coming back, well use this as motivation, Cook said.
The contributions of seniors Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee will be missed. Curry was the teams best shooter. Kelly was a stretch-4 who created matchup issues for everyone on Dukes schedule. And Plumlee was a reliable presence in the low post, a feature not seen on many recent Duke teams.
In their place, though, will be increased athleticism. Rodney Hood, who practiced with this years team after transferring from Mississippi State, has NBA-level athleticism. At 6-foot-8, 210 pounds, he has size not seen in a Duke wing since Kyle Singler left in 2011. And Hood uses his size and speed to slash to the basket.
Joining Hood in the 3-4 role will be Jabari Parker, the nations No. 2 recruit. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound Parker, the Gatorade national player of the year as a junior, told reporters Monday that he will replace what Ryan Kelly has done for next years team.
Parker was speaking at a practice for the McDonalds All-American game, where he was joined by another incoming Blue Devil, Matt Jones. The 6-foot-4, 180-pound guard could develop into the next Duke sharpshooter. The final member of the 2013 recruiting class, 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward Semi Ojeleye, will, along with Jones and the returning reserves, provide depth off the bench.
The major question mark for next years team will be in the post. Marshall Plumlee never got on track after breaking his left foot just before the beginning of practice, and Josh Hairston lacks the height and quickness of an elite big man. Coach Mike Krzyzewski referred to fifth-year players (seniors who have already graduated but have a year of eligibility remaining) as free agents this week Duke will likely take a look at what the market has to offer.
Even with the uncertainty in the middle, theres reason to be optimistic that next years team will be back at the region final, competing for a bid to the Final Four. The bitter taste of defeat in Cook and Sulaimons embrace could fuel next years Blue Devils to advance even further.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley