PHILADELPHIA — The day before Duke met Creighton in the NCAA tournament, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski called freshman Rasheed Sulaimon the possible X factor for his team.
As it turned out Sunday, Sulaimon also was the Y and Z factors in Duke's 66-50 victory in the third round at Wells Fargo Center.
Sulaimon made 5 of 9 shots in scoring 21 points in the victory that sent the Blue Devils to the Sweet 16 for the 27th time in program history. He also grabbed five rebounds and contributed to the defensive effort that held Creighton's highly efficient offense in check.
Krzyzewski called Sulaimon's performance terrific. The player called it just doing what needed to be done.
“The coaches always tell me to stay aggressive and look for my openings,” he said. “They tell me not to force anything but just to make reads and if I have the shot to take it with confidence.
“We all have confidence in each other's abilities, and they just want me to continue to play my game and put pressure on the opponent.”
Sulaimon's performance was doubly big because of the foul trouble that neutralized the inside punch of 6-foot-10 Mason Plumlee and 6-11 Ryan Kelly. Plumlee scored 10 points, seven fewer than his team-high average, before fouling out late in the game. Kelly had one point and finished with four fouls.
Sulaimon, already used to playing on the big stage, was pleased with the performance that came on an even bigger one.
“We've played in some tremendous games this year, some very big games and they were all nerve-wracking,” he said. “But to be here in the NCAA tournament, it just brings it to another level.
“Both teams are playing with a tremendous amount of urgency and nobody wants to go home and finish their season. It's definitely that much more intense. I thought we played a tremendous game tonight.”
Doug will ponder his future
Creighton fell short of its seasonlong goal of setting program history by making it to the Sweet 16. That is something that could ultimately figure in Doug McDermott's decision whether to return to Creighton for his senior season or turn professional.
“That's probably something I'll look at,” McDermott said, who steered clear of speculating when he might make a decision about his future.
“I'll probably go to the Final Four with my family and take some time,” McDermott said. “It's a decision I think that's just going to hit me. At some moment, I'll know what I'm going to do but I have no idea when that might be.
“It's like I've said many times before, I don't think I can go wrong with either decision.”
Bluejay coach Greg McDermott said there is no timeline for his son to decide.
“He's certainly earned the right to take some time and enjoy what he and his teammates have been able to accomplish this season,” the coach said. “He doesn't have to be in any hurry. It's something that doesn't need to be decided before the end of April, and he deserves the time to enjoy this experience.”
It's a rough night for CU offense
Duke held Creighton to a season-low 30.2 shooting from the field. The Bluejays knew coming in that the Blue Devils were going to be a tough nut to crack but they might have been even tougher than anticipated.
“We expected that it was going to be tough, but they really got up and denied us everything that we like to do,” guard Jahenns Manigat said. “They got up in our shorts and made it extremely difficult to do anything.
“At the same time, we got some decent looks and missed some shots we normally make.”
Many, many close calls
The referees called 26 fouls on Creighton and 20 on Duke. The Bluejays were careful not to criticize the officiating but said the way the game was called made it difficult for either team to get any offensive flow.
“It seems like anytime either team was ready to get something going, there was a whistle,” Manigat said. “That's basketball, though. It didn't go our way but we have to let that part of it go.
“The way they called the game was close for both sides. I'm sure Duke is in the locker room thinking we got away with some things. I think we feel the same. You can't blame the officials.”
More McDermott milestones
Doug McDermott finished his junior season with 834 points, the third-best total in Missouri Valley Conference history. The only Valley players to score more in a season are a pair of hall of famers — Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson (978) and Indiana State's Larry Bird (959).
— Steven Pivovar