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Thoughts On An Extraordinary Weekend Of Duke Basketball

Duke was very impressive in Charlotte but what was more impressive was the heart this team showed

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ACC Basketball Tournament - Championship
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 16: Teammates RJ Barrett #5 and Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils react after defeating the Florida State Seminoles 73-63 in the championship game of the 2019 Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The season is certainly not over, but from the games in Canada to the games in Charlotte this weekend, it’s been the greatest joyride for Duke fans since 1978 when the Duke Power Company ran all the way to the title game before losing to Kentucky.

That ride continued in the ACC Tournament with Zion Williamson leading the way. His performance was astonishing by any measure. As Jim Sumner tells us in his DBR game report, “Williamson’s final stat-line for the tournament was jaw-dropping. The tournament MVP ended with 81 points in three games. That breaks the ACC Tournament freshman scoring record of 75 points set by Phil Ford in 1975 and the Duke ACC Tournament scoring record of 80 set by Art Heyman in 1961. He converted 33-of-43 from the field and made 10-of-13 from the foul line over the final two games after a poor foul-shooting effort against Syracuse.“

We could be wrong but shooting 75 percent for the tournament is probably a record too, given some reasonable minimum number of shots taken.

Every so often the guy comes up with a play that just makes your eyes pop, land not just dunks.

Against Kentucky, he had that incredible take-away block and then drilled a beautiful bounce pass to RJ Barrett.

Against FSU, he replicated the last part of that Kentucky classic, hitting Tre Jones for a gorgeous bounce pass.

The other day, when talking about the now-traditional attempts to compare Williamson to someone, we suggested young Mike Tyson, because when Tyson was great, the fights were over before they started. The knockouts were almost anticlimactic because everyone knew he was going to clobber the other guy. The only question was how long it would take. Sometimes it was just a few seconds.

The crowd was ready, anticipating the knockout punch and roaring when it came.

It’s very much like that with Williamson. There are pictures of him dunking against Syracuse this weekend and even UNC fans are jumping and applauding.

Against Florida State, that pass was kind of the knockout punch. It was the point where he pushed his team to a new level and basically said, in the immortal words of Buzz Lightyear, “not today, Zurg!”

Not of course that he did it on his own.

In a lot of ways this game was a real achievement for Duke and would have been for any team in the same situation.

Williamson has been extraordinary in Charlotte but the other part of this is that he’d missed several games and can’t possibly be in peak condition. At times we waited for him to do something like block a shot out of nowhere and he chose not to go for it.

In other words, we think to an extent he picked his spots, based on conditioning limitations that most of us had no idea about.

And we thought that without Marques Bolden Duke would struggle much more inside against FSU’s than they did.

Keep in mind that not only was Bolden out and Williamson played three games in three days after being out for a couple of weeks, that Cam Reddish hasn’t played very well offensively, that Jack White and Alex O’Connell contributed minimally this weekend and that Javin DeLaurier played well but still tends to collect foolish fouls like the one where he tried to catch someone on a fast break for a blocked shot.

Williamson and Jones both played all 40 minutes, Barrett played 39 and Reddish 37.

Shooting was less than ideal too.

Against Syracuse, Duke shot 7-23 from three point range. Against UNC the Devils hit 5-20 and against FSU just 2-14 which works out to 14-57 for 24.5 percent.

As far as foul shots go, Duke was fairly pedestrian:

  • vs. Syracuse: 19-28 for 67.9 percent,
  • vs. UNC: 7-13 for 53.8 percent
  • vs. FSU: 17-21 for 81 percent

That works out to 43-62 for 69.3 percent.

These are both still valid concerns but when your best inside player is shooting 75 percent, poor three point shooting is less critical than it would normally be.

Foul shooting is a different concern and it nearly cost Duke against UNC when RJ Barrett missed two at the end of the game and Duke up just one. It’s a serious concern going forward.

Despite the media raving about Duke’s play, which is justified to an extent, the real story this weekend was how much Duke overcame: missing center, most of the team shooting poorly and the star coming back after missing five games and all but 30 seconds of a sixth.

The real story of Charlotte is not Duke’s obvious talent. UNC and Florida State has plenty of talent too.

The real story is Duke’s heart and desire and ability to overcome adversity. When you make your brackets out, don’t just pick Duke because of its talent and because Williamson is doing things we’ve never seen before.

Certainly don’t discount it. But you should also consider the immense heart the Blue Devils showed this weekend. They may not win the NCAA championship, but they have proven that they have the heart to do so.

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