After Duke beat Army on Nov. 30, the Blue Devils spent their next practice working on one overarching concept as they prepared for Wisconsin.
"Whether you make a shot or make a turnover, move on to the next play quickly," Rasheed Sulaimon said. "And, if we didn’t, we had to run."
Sulaimon clearly took that message to heart—"I guess I learned my lesson," was how he put it—based on two key possessions in the second half of Duke’s 80-70 win Wednesday night. He collected a defensive rebound but couldn’t finish the coast-to-coast layup and was visibly frustrated, his fist clenched with angry energy.
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But then he hustled back down the floor and stole the ball away from Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, and that steal would result in a Tyus Jones layup, putting Duke ahead 67-60 with 3:42 left in the game.
"I thought I should have made the lay-up, I had that in the back of my mind, but I moved onto the next play," Sulaimon said. "And the next opportunity I had to make a play, I made it."
Plays like that indicate that Sulaimon is embracing the defense-first mentality Krzyzewski wants from him. Sulaimon’s talent has never been in question—the uncertainty surrounded how he would fit in with another wave of freshmen talent.
"Rasheed is ready," Krzyzewski said. "He comes off the bench, he has embraced the role of being that energizer."
Sulaimon, Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson—the Duke veterans—have all embraced their specialist roles (this, for the record, was an idea written about on Nov. 21st and 26th). Krzyzewski goes out of his way nearly every game to point out how crucial Cook’s leadership is to the team’s success. It’s not hard to see how the outgoing, demonstrative senior could harness all that energy for good, drawing in his teammates like a magnet and creating a comfortable atmosphere that allows the young guns to thrive.
And, obviously, that’s what’s happening.
"He’s given me confidence by telling me to believe in myself because he knows what I can do on the court," Jones said of Cook after Duke’s other marquee win, against Michigan State. "He welcomed me with open arms and it’s been really easy to adjust."
Duke’s numbers are great—8-0, the most efficient offense in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy (scoring 1.202 points per possession against a statistically average defense) and an elite defense, too, that ranks 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency (surrendering .902 points per possession to the average offense). That’s the best defensive efficiency Duke has posted since the 2010 season—and everyone remembers how that one ended (check the rafters in Cameron for a refresher).
Yes, Duke’s freshmen trio of Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow will grab most of the headlines, and rightfully so. But when looking at the big picture of team success, don’t discount the seemingly-but-not-really little things Cook, Jefferson and Sulaimon do.
And how quickly they move on to the next play.