The narrative heading into Duke’s rematch with Syracuse was supposed to be about the Blue Devils’ quest to avenge their first home loss of the season, an overtime thriller that occurred without Cam Reddish and Tre Jones for most of the game.
That all changed due to both unfortunate and tragic circumstances Wednesday night.
Duke freshman Zion Williamson experienced what will probably become a mild blip in his life when his left shoe exploded and he sprained his right knee 30 seconds into the top-ranked Blue Devils’ home game against rival No. 8 North Carolina. The Tar Heels capitalized on his absence and cruised to an 88-72 upset victory.
That moment was put into perspective a couple of hours later, when Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim struck and killed a pedestrian on the side of the road as he swerved to avoid the man’s wrecked car. Boeheim cooperated with law enforcement and released a statement Thursday that he was “heartbroken” about the accident.
Friday afternoon, the Orange announced that Boeheim will be back on the sidelines with his team for the primetime matchup.
So, Duke and Syracuse will play a basketball game Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., if it still matters. Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski seems likely to be without his best player, who was listed as day-to-day Thursday afternoon, and one of his best friends will have much heavier thoughts weighing on his mind in the lead-up to the game.
“We’ve been friends for decades, and obviously, he and I shared the USA Basketball experience for 11 years, so it’s been a really great friendship and I’ve learned a lot from being with him,” Krzyzewski on the ACC’s weekly teleconference Monday afternoon, before the accident. “He’s a very smart guy and a brilliant coach. I’ve loved my friendship with him.”
On the court, Duke (23-3, 11-2 in the ACC) will be dealing with an Orange squad that has won four of its last five home games, including a 69-49 rout of No. 18 Louisville earlier Wednesday night. Freshman Buddy Boeheim—the coach’s son—came off the bench to knock down four triples, and Syracuse (18-8, 9-4) made 11 3-pointers as a team, the same number it made in its stunner at Cameron Indoor Stadium more than a month ago.
In that game, a perfect storm sank the Blue Devils, who raced out to a 12-0 lead before Jones separated his shoulder. Without Jones’ on-ball pressure forcing the Orange into mistakes and creating easy transition offense for Duke, Syracuse’s guards settled into a rhythm, and it seemed like Tyus Battle, Elijah Hughes and Frank Howard never missed, even from 75 feet away.
This time, they’ll have to deal with Jones again, but may benefit from an even more glaring absence. Williamson poured in a career-high 35 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the two teams’ first meeting, keeping the Blue Devils in the game.
Without Williamson for the last 39 and a half minutes of the showdown with North Carolina, the Blue Devils constantly settled for 3-pointers, making just 8-of-39. Their only game with more attempts was the loss to Syracuse, when they were a similarly abysmal 9-of-43 against the Orange’s 2-3 zone.
“It hurts. Every time we lose, it hurts. But when we lose, we remember how bad this feels,” junior captain Javin DeLaurier said after Wednesday’s game. “We know we’ve got Syracuse on Saturday. We know we lost that one here at our house, but we’ll be ready.”
The last time Duke dealt with an injury to a starter, it recovered from the loss for one of its biggest wins of the year at home against then-No. 4 Virginia without Jones. This time, the Blue Devils will hope to do the same in a big game without the national player of the year frontrunner, and Jones had some advice from personal experience about how Williamson can make the most of his recovery.
“Just try and learn as much as he can from the sideline. You’re able to see a different aspect of the game, a different perspective of the game,” Jones said. “It also makes you appreciate the game so much more. I’m sure he’s going to be able to figure it out himself.”
This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. Friday to note that Boeheim will be coaching Syracuse in Saturday's game.
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