Rasheed Sulaimon sat in a Durham, N.C., apartment last April and watched his best friends win the national championship without him. He wore a Duke basketball T-shirt, modest attire compared to his fellow students in attendance decked out head to toe in Blue Devils gear and coated in face paint.
Sulaimon, now a senior guard for the University of Maryland, was thrilled for his former teammates. He walked onto Duke's campus in 2012 with classmate Amile Jefferson. He spent nearly three years alongside Quinn Cook. He had helped nurture the dynamic freshmen foursome of Grayson Allen, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. He knew what went into their triumph, as Duke beat Wisconsin, 68-63, for the NCAA championship in Indianapolis.
Sulaimon was hurting. He phoned his father afterward in tears.
About three months prior, Sulaimon had become the first player ever dismissed from the Duke basketball team by head coach Mike Krzyzewski. In a statement, the legendary coach said the guard "repeatedly struggled to meet the necessary obligations" of the program. A month later, the school newspaper released a story that detailed two separate sexual assault allegations against Sulaimon.
He has since denied the claims and said they were unrelated to his fallout with the team. Still, his once promising career was in shambles. Sulaimon arrived at Duke as a five-star recruit from Houston. He averaged 11.6 points as a freshman and flirted with leaving for the NBA. His playing time and production then declined in the two seasons leading up to his dismissal.
Now, fast forward 10 months from the 2015 national championship game.
Sulaimon has restored order to his career after arriving at Maryland as a 6-foot-4 graduate transfer. Suddenly, as the Swiss Army knife of the top-five Terps, Sulaimon is getting the most minutes of his career. His statistical averages compare favorably to those from his freshman season in Durham, and he's shooting the ball better than he ever has before. Most important, he's a key cog on a roster that has a legitimate chance to win it all.
"We need to start making strides to become a better team," Sulaimon said after Maryland toppled then-No. 3 Iowa in College Park, Md., Jan. 28. "One of the things we talked about amongst ourselves is just playing hard. We have all the talent in the world on paper. We look great. But that doesn't win games."
As Maryland's most experienced player, Sulaimon is uniquely qualified to know what it takes to win. He played in the Elite Eight as a freshman and lost to a 14-seed as a sophomore before spending half a season with the eventual national champs. He's seen it all, and perhaps no one on Maryland's roster is more comfortable when the lights are brightest. It's why he so seamlessly slid into Maryland's leadership council alongside forwards Jake Layman and Robert Carter Jr.
Sulaimon's versatility has been vital to Maryland. The Terps have a national player of the year candidate in sophomore guard Melo Trimble and a potential lottery pick in freshman center Diamond Stone, not to mention a rock solid duo in Layman and Carter. Meanwhile, Sulaimon is the glue. He's the guy who can do whatever Maryland needs, whenever Maryland needs it.
His late 3-pointer saved the Terps against Georgetown Nov. 17. His 19 assists in three December games helped Maryland's offense reach a new gear. His spectacular 9-for-10 shooting performance buried Ohio State Jan. 16. And his lockdown defense stymied a previously unstoppable Iowa offense.
"He puts so much energy into defense, it's amazing the kid can make a shot," head coach Mark Turgeon said after Sulaimon's 17-point, five-assist, four-rebound masterpiece against the Hawkeyes. "He was fresh. Yesterday, his legs were fresh. The two days off helped us. He had a dunk in practice I didn't even know he could do. We need guys to score, take some pressure off. He was good."
Sulaimon seems to possess an innate ability to understand what his team needs from him to win. When Trimble is hot, Sulaimon is content to set him up. When his own shot isn't going, he's happy to concentrate on the defensive end. If the Terps need a rebound, Sulaimon will get it. Toughness? He has it. Leadership? No problem.
Perhaps his most underrated contribution has come in the energy department, where he has capably filled the shoes of former Terp Dez Wells. Despite only being on campus since August, Sulaimon has an uncanny connection with the Xfinity Center mob. Maybe it's his penchant for tossing crowd-pleasing alley-oops. Or maybe it's his reliable demeanor when the game is on the line.
Regardless, when Sulaimon beckons to the crowd -- as he frequently does -- Terrapin Nation always rises to its feet.
"I think if we play with that type of energy and emotion down the stretch, it will be tough for teams to beat us," he said in the days following several players-only meetings. "Coach does a great job coaching us, but at the end of the day, we're the ones playing. We knew there was something we had to do extra to help us win."
That sort of self-awareness is unusual for 21-year-olds. But Sulaimon's career has been just that. He went from the freshman du jour to an afterthought to a cautionary tale, all in three seasons. He's seen rock bottom. And while he was there he watched his ex-teammates showered with blue and white confetti from 600 miles away.
He's proven in his five months at Maryland that he can take a punch. He's proven that his talent is still there and that his competitive fire still burns. And as Maryland marches toward the NCAA tournament, he sounds ready to take his shot at redemption.
"They can say great things about us -- they can say bad things about us," Sulaimon said. "We're staying focused on us. We know what we have. We know what our potential could be. We're just focused on becoming a better team each and every day."