After a season of ups and downs, sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon is playing his best basketball just in time for the Big Dance.
Kevin Shamieh / Chronicle File Photo
After a season of ups and downs, sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon is playing his best basketball just in time for the Big Dance.
Did not play—coach's decision.

That was Rasheed Sulaimon's stat line from Duke's victory against Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten challenge back in December, the product of a month-long slump that relegated the one-time starter to the bench. But with hard work, newfound confidence and two big shots, Sulaimon is back in a big way as Duke heads into the NCAA tournament.

For a player who played valuable minutes on a senior-laden team as a freshman last season, Sulaimon's peaks and valleys have been more pronounced than anticipated. The sophomore struggled mightily in November—he scored in double-digits in Duke's first two games but did not eclipse eight points again until Dec. 28 against Eastern Michigan, a nine-game stretch in which he averaged 4.0 points per game.

After a rough start to the year, Rasheed Sulaimon has bounced back and played a major role in helping Duke out of its slow start in ACC play.
Chronicle Graphic by Elysia Su
The Houston native hit rock bottom with a resounding thud Dec. 3, when he did not see any game action in Duke's 79-69 victory against the Wolverines. With a stable of talented guards at his disposal, head coach Mike Krzyzewski split Sulaimon's minutes among Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton and freshman Matt Jones. In his postgame comments, Krzyzewski did not dance around the issue.

"[Sulaimon] has to play better than the guys who played tonight," Krzyzewski said. "He contributed great from the bench."

The sophomore got a chance in Duke's next game, but not much of one, playing just five scoreless minutes in a Blue Devil win against Gardner-Webb.

After a very productive freshman season, Sulaimon did not live up to expectations in the opening stretch of the 2013-14 season.
Jennie Xu / Chronicle File Photo
Long talks with his parents followed as Sulaimon tried to work his way out of the funk.

"I just told myself that it can’t get any worse than this right now, so I just had to get out of it," Sulaimon said during the ACC tournament.

Signs of an upward swing came in Duke's Dec. 19 victory against UCLA at Madison Square Garden. Sulaimon scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists. His confidence was back, but the recovery was still incomplete.

When freshman Jabari Parker joined Sulaimon in a rut, the team's performance as a whole continued to suffer. Duke got off to a rocky 1-2 start in ACC play thanks to two poor second-half showings at Notre Dame and at Clemson. In those losses, Sulaimon attempted just six shots and scored eight points total, a total non-factor.

Sulaimon's season—and his team's—changed for the better Jan. 13 when the Blue Devils returned home to face Virginia. Duke led by double-digits late in the second half when the Cavaliers mounted a furious comeback, grabbing a 65-64 lead with less than 40 seconds to play. Sulaimon, who finished the game with a season-high 21 points, used an extremely friendly bounce to knock in a go-ahead 3-pointer off a broken play, helping the Blue Devils survive their third collapse in four games.

Sulaimon's fortunate 3-pointer to bury a Virginia comeback in Cameron Indoor Stadium put a halt to Duke's ACC struggles and helped Sulaimon become a consistent contributor again.
Julia Dunn / Chronicle File Photo
“A lot of prayer and just getting back in the gym and just believing in myself again," Sulaimon said about what helped him turn the corner. "Once I did that I started executing again, and all my hard work in practice [paid off]... once I started doing well Coach gave me a chance in the game."

With his slump in the rearview mirror, Sulaimon saw an uptick in playing time and took advantage, posting double-digit performances in seven of his next nine games. Nestled in that span was Duke's Feb. 1 game at Syracuse, in which Sulaimon hit one of the memorable shots of the college basketball season. Taking the ball the full length of the court in five seconds, he rose up and drilled a triple at the buzzer to send the game into overtime and the Carrier Dome crowd into silence.

Sulaimon is far from the only Blue Devil to go through a rough patch this season. Parker needed a few ACC games to get accustomed to carrying the load in conference play, Andre Dawkins has endured cold spells from beyond the arc and Quinn Cook currently finds himself out of a starting job. But throughout the season, Krzyzewski and his coaching staff have remained positive and given everyone the opportunity to earn back their minutes.

Sulaimons late-game scoring ability will serve Duke well in tournament play as teams focus defensive efforts on Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker.
Elysia Su / Chronicle File Photo
"Practice is a big thing. Guys are willing to work and get out of their rut," redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood said. "You have to come in locked in every day. There have been a couple games where guys haven't played, but everybody's going to get a shot to play. It just depends on what you do while you're in there."

The shots didn't go down for Sulaimon in Sunday's ACC title game, but the sophomore still enters the NCAA tournament playing some of his best basketball of the season and could be the key to a Blue Devil title pursuit.

He's no stranger to rising to the occasion—scoring a team-high 21 points to push Duke past Creighton in the Round of 32 last March—and has proven himself with two clutch 3-pointers this season, making Sulaimon one of a number of weapons opponents will have to key on if the game comes down to the final possession.

"Some people could have folded, splintered," sophomore Amile Jefferson said. "He's gutted it out, and he's been playing really well. He's a big key for our team because he can do things that not many people in the country can."

Michigan looms as a potential Sweet 16 opponent for the Blue Devils. Sulaimon may still get his crack at the Wolverines after all.