Zion Williamson's return looms large as 68 teams begin quest to Minneapolis
It was 36 seconds into the 249th meeting between Duke and North Carolina when the Blue Devils' freshmen star, Zion Williamson, suffered a knee sprain. Cameron Indoor Stadium went silent as Williamson would be out the rest of the night. Williamson's absence allowed the Tar Heels take control of the game for a 88-72 win.
Williamson missed the next five games, all in conference, meaning head coach Mike Kryzyzewski had to lean heavily on the production of freshmen guards RJ Barrett and Cameron Reddish.
From last season to this, Williamson has played a huge role in the Blue Devils' success. Making a run to the Midwest Regional Championship last season, Duke is a favorite to win the entire tournament this season.
“The game pace is faster because you are facing guys who are very athletic and have multiple skills,” Ball State Men's Basketball redshirt freshman center Blake Huggins said. “It’s been crazy on how Zion has made the transition look somewhat easy. When he went down, that was a big loss, but Duke is still Duke, and guys stepped up."
In Williamson's time off the court, the Blue Devils began to struggle. They dropped matches to Virginia Tech and North Carolina again and barely escaped Wake Forest, who has been sitting at the bottom of the ACC for the majority of the season. During that five-game stretch, Barrett averaged 24.8 points per game and Reddish put up 14 points per game as the primary options leading the Zion-less Duke charge.
However, once Williamson returned, Duke began to roll once again. In his return against Syracuse on March 14 in the ACC Tournament, Williamson dropped 29 points on 13 of 13 shooting, which broke the ACC Tournament record of 66 years and was the best shooting performance in Duke’s history.
“Having go-to moves and counters when you get cut off are important when playing down low,” Ball State Men’s Basketball senior center Trey Moses said. “He’s a different breed of player, capable of perimeter shooting and is powerful in the post because he’s quicker, more athletic and stronger than most who guard him.”
Duke won the ACC Tournament with a 74-73 win in the semifinals against North Carolina and a 73-63 win versus Florida State. Williamson put up 31 points and 11 rebounds against the Tar Heels and 21 points against the Seminoles.
Going into the NCAA Tournament, Duke is slated as the No. 1 overall seed in the east region facing the winner of North Carolina Central and North Dakota State who will play Wednesday.
This team has simulated Michigan's Fab Five with four of the five starters being freshman and each being some of the top players in the nation. Williamson is a physical talent similar to Charles Barkley as far as his performance down low scoring and grabbing rebounds.
Barrett and Reddish are lengthy volume shooters who can be thorns from the perimeter and knock down foul shots. Guard Tre Jones is one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation and a great facilitator, leading the team in steals with 65 and assists with 171.
“He rarely takes multiple dribbles, and if he gets to his spot, you’re not blocking him. He is going to elevate and shoot over you,” Moses said. “You don’t really dare him to shoot, but if you get too close, he’ll simply drive past you and get a highlight-reel dunk. He’s a tough matchup.”