DURHAM – Dalvin Cook, one of the top running back prospects in the country (No. 4 in the ESPN rankings), made a lot of Florida fans mad when he switched his commitment from the Gators to Florida State.
He told the Orlando Sentinel that the Florida staff tried to convince him to stay on board by touting new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who is jumping from Duke to Florida.
The staff told Cook to watch the Duke-Texas A&M game in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but even though Roper directed the Duke offense to 48 points and more than 600 yards against the Aggies, it didn’t have the impact on Cook that the Gator staff expected.
“People told me to watch the Duke game,” Cook said. “I watched the Duke game. Coach Roper is a great coach, but I don’t think Florida has the athletes like Duke’s got.”
Florida doesn’t have the athletes that Duke has?
That’s not what the recruiting rankings suggest. Based on the ESPN rankings, over the last four years, Florida has signed eight five-star prospects and 60 four-star players. The Gators have had the No. 1, No. 2, No. 4 and No. 12 classes in the country. Over that same span, Duke has landed no five-star prospects and exactly one four-star recruit – punter Will Monday. No Duke class has ranked in ESPN’s top-50 classes.
Roper, who has worked under head coach David Cutcliffe for six years at Ole Miss, two years at Tennessee and six seasons at Duke, will leave a void as he leaves to take the coordinator job at Florida.
Although there have been internet speculation that Cutcliffe would lure Florida State quarterback coach Randy Sanders (who coached under Cut at Tennessee and replaced him as the offensive coordinator there) to Duke to replace Roper, the more likely scenario is that he will promote wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery, a former Blue Devil receiving standout who just rejoined the staff last season after three years with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL.
In addition to his duties coaching the wide receivers, Montgomery served as associate head coach and offensive coordinator of the passing game.
Sulaimon Still A Puzzle
Duke had every reason to expect that sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon would be one of the ACC’s best players in 2013-14.
As a freshman last season, Sulaimon was pretty good – averaging 11.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and playing some impressive defense as a starter on a 30-win, Elite Eight team. He finished second in the ACC rookie of the year vote and over the summer, started for the gold-medal winning USA Under 19 team at the world championships in Czechoslovakia.
With normal freshman-to-sophomore improvement, Sulaimon should have become an All-ACC candidate this season.
Instead, Sulaimon’s sophomore season has been a struggle.
When the 2013 starter didn’t play in Duke’s last exhibition game, Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski talked about health issues. But that didn’t seem to be a problem as the native Texan came off the bench in the opener against Davidson and poured in 20 points in 25 minutes.
“I think he is finally in good shape,” Krzyzewski said at the time. “Rasheed had a great week of practice, and he is an explosive player, he is a really good player. We should expect him to play at the level he played tonight.”
Instead, Sulaimon’s production – and his playing time – began to decline dramatically. By the time Duke faced Michigan in Game Nine, he didn’t get off the bench.
There were no health excuses this time. Instead, Krzyzewski offered a vague comment that Sulaimon had to play better than the players in front of him to get playing time.
Actually, Duke does have considerable depth at the wing guard position. Seniors Tyler Thornton and Andre Dawkins were getting most of the minutes at that spot with freshman Matt Jones – a very advanced young defender – seeing considerable action.
But Thornton, while an excellent defender, is not much of an offensive threat. And Dawkins, while one of the best three-point shooters in college basketball, is a shaky defender. Neither boasts the all-around game that Sulaimon can provide.
What was going on?
Rumors of a battle of wills were rife, along with the suggestion that Sulaimon was in Krzyzewski’s famous doghouse. The comments grew so pointed that a clearly vexed coach insisted that he didn’t have a doghouse – even for his dog, which he claims sleeps beside his bed.
Apparently, Sulaimon’s struggles were more about confidence than anything else. He did have some physical issues in preseason and that led to some struggles that led to a crisis in confidence.
“I don’t know exactly what it is from the outside looking in,” teammate Rodney Hood said recently. “I think he was just tired. He played overseas and came right back to campus.”
Hood said that during the exam week that followed the Michigan game, Sulaimon spent considerable time in the gym, working on his game. That work appeared to pay off when Duke played UCLA in Madison Square Garden. Sulaimon played a solid 18 minutes (eight points, five rebounds, four assists), hitting the shot that broke the game open down the stretch.
The reaction of the Duke team – and Krzyzewski – to that shot was an indication of how significant it was.
“It just feels like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” Sulaimon told Laura Keeley of the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. “I just have to thank the coaches and my teammates; they helped me through the ups and downs and never lost faith in me. It was up to me to get it back going, and I think you kind of saw that today.”
So what was the problem?
“It’s just a mental thing,” he said. “To be honest, I probably wasn’t as mentally tough as I should have been. Once I got that out of the way and stopped thinking about, ‘Woe (is) me,’ I just focused on what can I do to help this team win.”
Sulaimon followed his strong UCLA outing with impressive performances in easy wins over Eastern Michigan and Elon. But in Duke’s ACC opener at Notre Dame, he was ineffective again with just six points in 22 minutes (on 1-of-4 shooting from the floor).
It’s pretty clear that Sulaimon has not yet regained the level that he displayed as a freshman – much less made the normal freshman-to-sophomore improvement.
Until that happens, it will be hard for this Duke basketball team to reach its potential.