In the past eight games, guards Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon have split Duke's fifth starting spot right down the middle—four games apiece.
The Blue Devil rotation has remained pretty steady otherwise; Tyler Thornton, Rodney Hood, Amile Jefferson, and Jabari Parker consistently open the game for head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Yet the final spot remains, leaving fans wondering up until about ten minutes before tip-off who will fill it that night. One thing is for sure: this variance keeps everyone—including Cook and Sulaimon—on their toes.
"We've just got to be ready," Sulaimon said after Tuesday's 68-51 win. "Coaches are going to put out the lineup that they think is best for the game, and Quinn and I both know that. Sometimes I’m going to be out there, sometimes he’s going to be out there. We’re both ready to contribute our talents whenever we get out there and run the team."
While the one-two punch approach may not have dominated Duke's rotation throughout the season, senior captain Tyler Thornton said it's nothing new for the team—especially on the practice floor.
"We practiced all preseason switching it up," Thornton said. "[Sulaimon and Cook] both bring different things to the game and they both contribute in different ways. It just helps us with our depth…. I think it’s an advantage that we have that many teams don’t have."
Indeed, the advantage seems to be paying off.
In the past eight games, the Blue Devils are 7-1 with a point differential of +85. Duke has catapulted back into the No. 5 slot in the AP Poll after falling out of the top ten earlier this season, and is poised for even higher rankings with a successful week.
It goes without saying that both players are competitive and ready to start, but Cook also noted that some plusses come with playing off the bench.
"I think you just get an advantage coming off the bench because you see how the game is being played," Cook said. "You see how [the opposing players] are playing defense, and how the refs are calling the game."
One of the best parts about Krzyzewski's backcourt by committee approach is that it pushes Cook and Sulaimon to challenge each other and improve. The young guards have different body types and strengths, and one's skill set is constantly tested against the other's in practice, where Cook and Sulaimon alternate running with the first team.
"We just go at each other," Sulaimon said. "We just try to make each other better. Being a smaller, quicker guy, he can really get up under me and it forces me to better my ball-handling skills. Me being a longer, more athletic guy, it forces him to protect the ball better."
Cook and Sulaimon aren't always in direct competition with each other.
The guards' complementary skills can form an effective tandem as well, especially in later parts of a game.
"We’re both great ball-handlers," Sulaimon said. "We both can penetrate the defense and get others involved. We’re both good set-shooters as well, so having Quinn in the backcourt with me takes a lot of pressure off me at the point guard position."
Cook also enjoys the combination.
"[Sulaimon] is a great player," Cook said. "You know he can score the ball. We were in the backcourt together last year so we have great chemistry. It’s fun playing out there with him—we complement each other very well."
While the starting lineup may be unpredictable, Thornton said the variability is not something that bothers or distracts the team.
"If it was a distraction, that would mean we were an immature team," Thornton said. "That stuff really doesn't matter, as long as you come in and do your job, everything will be fine and everybody will be happy."