Matt Jones, Justise Winslow thriving for Duke in Rasheed Sulaimon’s absence

Duke guard Matt Jones (13) and teammates center Jahlil Okafor (15) and center Marshall Plumlee (40) react with fans as they beat North Carolina 92-90 in overtime in Durham, NC Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015.
Duke guard Matt Jones (13) and teammates center Jahlil Okafor (15) and center Marshall Plumlee (40) react with fans as they beat North Carolina 92-90 in overtime in Durham, NC Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. cliddy@newsobserver.com

It has been four weeks since Mike Krzyzewski surprised everyone by kicking Rasheed Sulaimon off the team. And the result of that decision looks like addition by subtraction.

In the month Sulaimon has been gone, the No. 4 Blue Devils have gone 8-0, with three wins over top 15 teams – the same number of such wins they had in the 20 games with Sulaimon. And the two players most responsible for taking his minutes and production – Matt Jones and Justise Winslow, respectively – have filled the hole he left and then some.

“Sometimes there is a player or two who has shown a lot of improvement and just hasn’t gotten the playing time and is ready by this time of the year, where he wasn’t ready at the beginning of the year,” Krzyzewski said, speaking of the general addition by subtraction phenomenon. “And they get an opportunity, and sometimes they’re ready. And that’s something new, which makes other people better, the guys who have been doing it the whole year. It’s a shot of positive play, a shot of adrenaline for a team. But that doesn’t happen all the time. But certainly that can happen, and it has happened.”

Duke (25-3, 12-3 ACC) will get another chance to show off its improvement Saturday night against Syracuse (18-10, 9-6). The Orange, too, arguably have gotten better since suffering a major loss – the hope of postseason play, gone when the school decided to self-impose a postseason ban amidst an NCAA investigation – and are coming off a win at Notre Dame Tuesday.

Jones was the obvious candidate to step up in Sulaimon’s absence – the two have similar size and could play the same position, with Jones having the extra bonus of the capability to play the power forward spot when Duke goes small. In the 20 games with Sulaimon, Jones averaged 17 minutes and shot 38.6 percent from the floor.

In the eight games since Sulaimon’s departure, Jones has not played fewer than 19 minutes, and he is averaging 26 minutes per game. While the Blue Devils still don’t need much from him offensively, he has improved his shooting, hitting 43.6 percent of his shots in that span.

“I’ve definitely tried to grasp it and take ahold of it,” Jones said of the opportunity. “Obviously we didn’t want Rasheed to leave, but at the same time, personally, I was ecstatic about it. I just told myself that it was my moment now, and I had to just take advantage of it.”

If Jones is the “something new” in Krzyzewski’s description, then Winslow is the “other people better.” Through the first 20 games, he was averaging 10.7 points per game and shooting 42.9 percent from the field.

Since then, Winslow has scored in double figures every game, recording four double-doubles (his first four of the year). Winslow is also making more of his shots from the field (44-of-85, 51.8 percent) in this current stretch.

Against Virginia Tech, with the Blue Devils down 52-47 with 15 minutes to play, Winslow took two straight defensive rebounds all the way to the other end, finishing at Duke’s rim. Those type of plays gave Duke a verve, Krzyzewski said, using one of his favorite words.

“In a couple critical situations, we set it up for him to drive,” Krzyzewski said. “And then muck it up.”

Winslow smiled when he was asked to translate “muck it up,” saying it just means for him to be aggressive, and that helps open more up for Jahlil Okafor and Duke’s shooters, too. There was nothing preventing him from doing that earlier in the season, but it has clicked more of late.

When asked if the dwindling numbers have made him realize more was expected of him, Winslow has consistently said that he has tried to be aggressive all year long, regardless of the situation. Jones, too, had difficulty articulating exactly why he has been so much more effective of late.

“I just knew that I had to take what I had done and take it to a higher level. I’ve been trying to do that since day one,” he said. “I don’t know. The coaches have been behind me and the players have been behind me.”

Sometimes it just takes losing something (or someone in this case) to strengthen the whole.

Duke vs. Syracuse

When: 7:05 p.m.

Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham

TV/Radio: ESPN, 620 AM/102.9 FM

Projected starting lineups:

No. 4 Duke (25-3, 12-3 ACC)

G Tyus Jones, 11.5 ppg, 5.7 apg

G Quinn Cook, 15.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg

G Matt Jones 5.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg

F Justise Winslow, 12.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg

C Jahlil Okafor, 18.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg

Syracuse 18-10 (9-6 ACC)

G Kaleb Joseph, 6.5 ppg, 4.1 apg

G Trevor Cooney, 13.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg

G/F Michael Gbinije, 13.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg

F Tyler Roberson, 7.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg

C Rakeem Christmas, 18.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg