DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — This is supposed to be the time when all talk around No. 3 Duke and Mike Krzyzewski focuses on the rivalry matchup with North Carolina, another Atlantic Coast Conference title chase and earning a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Yet the Hall of Fame coach is getting peppered with questions about a player who hasn’t been on the roster for more than a month.
Krzyzewski dismissed junior Rasheed Sulaimon in January for being “unable to consistently live up” to team standards. But during this week leading up to Saturday night’s regular-season finale against the No. 19 Tar Heels, he is still being asked for details on why Sulaimon is gone.
The coach had twice declined to comment specifically on Sulaimon this week and did so again Friday. But he also said there’s no distraction for a team that has played its best basketball since Sulaimon’s abrupt exit.
“I’m not responding to you talking about that, I’m talking about in general: you just need to be able to block things out,” Krzyzewski said. “And I think this team has been really good about just focus. But again, you have four freshmen who are going into the postseason after this game for the first time.”
Krzyzewski issued a statement when Sulaimon was dismissed Jan. 29 saying the guard had “repeatedly struggled to meet the necessary obligations” to be a part of the program.
Usually when Krzyzewski tries to put something behind him, it’s done. He is the winningest coach in men’s Division I history, with a reputation for winning while running a clean program; he’s never before kicked a player off the team.
Now in his 40th season as a head coach, Krzyzewski has 1,010 wins dating to his 5-year stint at Army. Since coming to Duke, he has four NCAA championships, 11 Final Fours, a record-tying 13 ACC tournament championships and coached the U.S. men’s national team to two Olympic gold medals.
But the Sulaimon questions are hanging around.
There have been national news organizations descending on the elite private university inquiring about Sulaimon, who hasn’t commented publicly and left the team as a student in good standing.
Sulaimon was dismissed less than 24 hours after he played in a loss at Notre Dame. The Blue Devils (27-3, 14-3 ACC) haven’t missed him on the court, winning all 10 games — including the first meeting with UNC (21-9, 11-6) in an overtime instant classic — to stand behind second-ranked Virginia atop the league standings.
The Blue Devils are one of the biggest threats to top-ranked Kentucky’s quest for an unbeaten season. They have a national player of the year candidate in freshman big man Jahlil Okafor, two more touted rookies in Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, as well as senior guard Quinn Cook having his best season as the team’s No. 2 scorer.
Yet Sulaimon’s departure has left Krzyzewski fielding questions that don’t appear to be going away anytime soon — particularly the deeper Duke pushes into the postseason.
That much was evident this week.
On Monday, Krzyzewski declined to comment several times when reporters asked about Sulaimon during the weekly ACC coaches teleconference. The questions came again two days later after Duke’s home finale, with Krzyzewski this time citing privacy laws in declining to discuss the matter.
On Friday, Krzyzewski spoke generally about college teams needing “to have blinders on … listening to one voice” in March.
“Our team has been really good about it,” he said. “We have talked to them about that, not any specific situation, because this is that time of the year where you want to be very disciplined in that regard.”
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he doesn’t know specifics about the Sulaimon situation and has “the most amount of respect and trust … you can possibly have” for Krzyzewski personally and professionally. He said Friday he doesn’t believe the Sulaimon questions will overshadow the famed rivalry.
“I think the rivalry has stood the test of time, with different coaches, different players,” Williams said. “I don’t think it will lessen the thought process about the game.”
Sulaimon was averaging 7.5 points off the bench this year in a sometimes-bumpy career that saw his playing time decline each season. His departure left Duke with eight scholarship players — though all are McDonald’s All-Americans — and makes it vulnerable to foul trouble.
Then again, these Blue Devils went on the road two days after Sulaimon’s dismissal and handed the Cavaliers their only loss.
“We’re all focused on what’s going on on the basketball court, what’s going on in our locker room,” Cook said. “We’ve worked too hard to get to this point to let anything outside our program basically cause a distraction.”
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary contributed to this report.
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