SYRACUSE, N.Y.—From the outside, it seemed like Duke dodged a bullet Thursday when the team announced Zion Williamson was recovering from a Grade 1 knee sprain instead of a more serious injury and was day-to-day.
Inside the program, it was a day of soul-searching, with head coach Mike Krzyzewski concerned about how poorly his team had responded to losing its star player 30 seconds into an 88-72 loss to North Carolina the night before. He was also irritated at the national debate on both sides of what he brushed aside as a silly notion that Williamson shouldn't play for the rest of the season to protect his professional career.
Krzyzewski wasn't even sure if he would take Williamson with the team to the game, worried that his mere presence would reignite the distracting punditry. Williamson shut that idea down, saying he wanted to be with his teammates, so he was next to the coaching staff on the bench in a blue and black polo shirt.
Before turning his attention to Syracuse and making several major adjustments to his rotation that resulted in a 75-65 win for the Blue Devils, Krzyzewski had to get to the bottom of what happened to his players.
"The last 48 hours, come on. Everybody’s got opinions about everything. It’s not just playing, it’s amateurism," Krzyzewski said after Saturday's victory. "We were knocked back. I met with almost every one of my guys individually and three of the freshmen together, just like, 'How did you feel? How do you feel now?'"
During those meetings, he told Alex O'Connell he would start for the first time this season Saturday. The sophomore guard responded with the best game of his college career, pouring in 20 points and shooting 5-of-8 from long distance. Krzyzewski called his 4-point play that turned a two-point deficit into a two-point advantage the game's key play.
"I’ve had about 48 hours to prepare, talk to myself in my head, positive self-thinking, and I was really confident tonight going in from the jump," O'Connell said. "As great a player as Zion is, we have some other talent on this team, and we came together tonight."
Javin DeLaurier grabbed two offensive rebounds on that possession before kicking it out to O'Connell, and the junior captain started and played a season-high 27 minutes after failing to eclipse 20 for more than two months.
When DeLaurier went to the bench with four fouls, Marques Bolden—the man DeLaurier replaced in the lineup—made an impact in his second-fewest minutes on the floor all season, playing just 10 but grabbing eight rebounds, including four on the offensive end to help bleed clock down the stretch.
Krzyzewski also modified his defensive game plan with Williamson unavailable, deciding to have R.J. Barrett guard 6-foot-8 forward Oshae Brissett and moving Tre Jones from Frank Howard onto Tyus Battle. After Battle torched the Blue Devils for 32 points during the Orange's upset in Durham when Jones was hurt for most of the game, he shot just 4-of-17 on his way to 16 points in the Carrier Dome.
The most surprising adjustment came when Krzyzewski put Joey Baker in a game for the first time all season, burning his potential redshirt. Baker expected to play after Thursday's internal meetings, though he spent just five scoreless minutes on the court.
Krzyzewski suggested after the season opener against Kentucky that as long as O'Connell and Jack White continued shooting well like they did that night, he wouldn't need to use Baker. That has changed with Duke's numerous putrid showings from deep in conference play, including an 8-of-39 performance against the Tar Heels.
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"He’s played well in practice," Krzyzewski said. "Obviously, we haven’t shot the ball well except for that [road] Virginia game, and Alex and Joey are two of our better shooters, so he’ll continue to get stuff."
Perhaps Krzyzewski still wouldn't have inserted Baker if he had seen O'Connell deliver in front of a record crowd beforehand, and Baker didn't play in the second half while O'Connell had the hot hand, but White has missed 25 straight 3-point attempts and didn't play at all Saturday.
Krzyzewski didn't have an update on when Williamson will return, repeating that he is day-to-day, but said, "It's an injury you can get over in a shorter period of time." The Blue Devils' head coach is in no hurry, though—his new-look squad showed that it's capable of key wins without its freshman superstar.
"Everybody has more responsibility. [Zion's] a big part of our team, and everybody had to step up today," Barrett said following his sixth 30-point game of the year. "That’s what we did."