Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and the Blue Devils have been the center of college basketball hype all season.
Their team’s legacy, however, will be defined during the next four weeks.
No. 3 seed Duke will begin postseason play Thursday at approximately 9:30 p.m. when the Blue Devils battle No. 6 seed Syracuse in the ACC tournament quarterfinals at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte. After struggling to close out the regular season, Duke should get a boost with the return of Williamson and will look to regain its spot on the top line of the NCAA tournament bracket this week.
“[The ACC has] four teams that have 25 or more wins. That’s crazy. It’s been a hell of a conference regular season,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the Blue Devils’ defeat in Chapel Hill last Saturday. “Now, everyone’s 0-0 and we go forward.”
Following a 23-2 start to the regular season, the Blue Devils dropped three of their final six contests after Williamson sprained his knee in the opening seconds against North Carolina Feb. 20. Duke struggled to complement Barrett’s dynamic scoring ability without Williamson’s 21.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per contest.
More importantly, Williamson will provide a much-needed interior presence on both ends of the floor for the Blue Devils. Duke managed in the paint with Marques Bolden manning the middle, but Bolden has since been ruled out for the ACC tournament after suffering an MCL sprain against North Carolina Saturday, leaving the Blue Devils thin at the center position.
“We try not to let it impact us at all,” Tre Jones said of injuries after Bolden went down. “I’ve gone down this year, Zion’s gone down, and when that’s happened, it’s set us back as a team a little bit in those games…. We’ve just got to keep growing as a team. We’re in the postseason now, so everything we did in the regular season, we’ve got to look at and learn from.”
Jones’ first-half shoulder injury Jan. 14 against Syracuse (20-12) knocked Duke out of its rhythm as the Blue Devils went on to fall 95-91 in overtime despite 35 points from Williamson and a near triple-double from Barrett. Duke (26-5) then avenged that loss Feb. 23 in the team’s first full contest without Williamson as Barrett dropped 30 and sophomore Alex O’Connell drained a career-high five triples.
O’Connell has risen to the occasion at times with Williamson sidelined and could provide a much-needed sharpshooter off the bench for the Blue Devils during the postseason. The Roswell, Ga., native has converted 47.6 percent of his triples in the past five games despite going scoreless and missing all four shots he took in the regular-season finale at North Carolina, and he could get more open looks with another dynamic playmaker on the court.
O’Connell also should get significant minutes against the Orange Thursday after averaging 18 points per contest against Syracuse this season, including nine made treys. Duke’s ability to connect from downtown will be essential against Jim Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone defense, which can be hard to penetrate at times.
“They play a zone defense, so just being able to space out and then making sure that my teammates have confidence in my shooting—tonight, I did that,” O’Connell said after the Blue Devils’ 75-65 win at the Carrier Dome. “I was just making sure that all night that the middle of the zone, they can attack it and I’ll be spaced ready to shoot for them.”
The Blue Devils will also likely catch a break against the Orange as leading scorer Tyus Battle is still recovering from a bruised hip suffered against Clemson in the regular-season finale. After Wednesday night's win against Pittsburgh, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said Battle had "regressed" in his recovery, adding that the junior is "two to three days" away from playing.
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Battle was a key contributor in the Orange's upset win in Cameron, as he totaled a season-high 32 points on 12-for-28 shooting.
If Duke gets past Syracuse Thursday, it will likely set up a third edition of the Tobacco Road rivalry—a 9:30 Friday night showdown between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels that could be a battle not just for an ACC title game spot for a third straight season, but also for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
In the event Duke advances to the championship game Saturday at 8:30 p.m., it could end up facing Virginia for the third time this season after the Blue Devils swept the regular-season home-and-home series.
“In order to win a championship, you have to be outstanding,” Krzyzewski said. “These guys will react quickly. It depends on Zion, his shape, and I think it’ll happen real quick.”
Editor's note: This article was updated Thursday at noon after an official announcement that Williamson will return.