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Final Four 2015: With Success, Sulaimon Largely Forgotten

Rasheed Sulaimon's dismissal was a big deal and, as it turns out, in some respects probably the key point in the season.

Jan 17, 2015; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell (24) and guard Shaqquan Aaron (21) trap Duke Blue Devils guard Rasheed Sulaimon (14) during the second half at KFC Yum! Center. Duke defeated Louisville 63-52
Jan 17, 2015; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell (24) and guard Shaqquan Aaron (21) trap Duke Blue Devils guard Rasheed Sulaimon (14) during the second half at KFC Yum! Center. Duke defeated Louisville 63-52
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to think back now, but when Sulaimon was dismissed, there were dire concerns about the season: depth was a huge problem and defense would take a major hit.

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Remember?

That was right after the loss at Notre Dame.

Since then, Duke has lost just once, to the Irish in the ACC Tournament. That's 17-3 with Sulaimon, 17-1 without, and the second half of the season has been the meat of the season.

We've wondered often what he has thought as the season unwound - did I blow it? Am I happier now? Am I happy for them?

Sulaimon is the forgotten part of the season.

After he left, Coach K, perhaps channeling Dick Van Patten briefly, picked up a new mantra for his team: eight is enough.

Sulaimon's departure allowed Justise Winslow, Matt Jones and Grayson Allen to either expand or reinvent their roles. In a sense, for those guys, it was a gift, although probably a disruptive one. Or maybe it was a break from disruption.

None of us get in the locker room and we'll never know exactly what happened, but it seems to have worked out okay.

Now the attention turns to Indianapolis and the Final Four. Duke has to beat Michigan State to advance, and te temptation there is to say, well, they did it once, right?

That was Duke's third game of the year and just #2 for the Spartans.

Michigan State still has a central flaw, which is strong post play, but they're doing it in tandem with Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling. They're averaging 12.2 ppg and 9.1 rpg. Compare that to Jahlil Okafor, who is putting up 17.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg. It's not all that far off statistically, really.

The core of the team, really, is Lourawls Nairn, Jr., Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine and most of all Travis Trice. That's an agile, athletic and quick group of players, and Trice has been the difference maker. Coach K said he's playing as well as anyone in the tournament.

It's of limited value to look at this now, but the first time out, Trice shot 7-15, had six rebounds and eight assists and four fouls.

As Al McGuire famously said of Phil Ford, cut off the head and the body dies.

In our opinion, that's the way to attack the Spartans now. Trice is playing brilliantly. Disrupt him and you really damage Michigan State's prospects.

We'll have more in our full game preview, but it is worth mentioning that as much as Michigan State has improved, so has Duke, and nowhere more than on defense.

Just as a quick hit, let's look at the good teams Duke has played in that 17-1 streak:

Virginia - 63

Notre Dame - 60

UNC - 90

UNC - 77

NC State -53

San Diego State - 57

Utah - 57

Gonzaga - 52

To an extent, you can toss out the UNC scores as outliers since, well, it's Duke and UNC.

Otherwise? Against really solid teams? Duke has given up 57 points a game.

And since the last UNC game, Duke has done this on defense:

  • 53
  • 74 (Notre Dame loss in the ACC Tournament)
  • 56
  • 49
  • 57
  • 52
Whatever came out of Sulaimon's dismissal, no one expected Duke's defense to improve.