CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the aftermath of Saturday’s ACC tournament championship, Duke’s stars slipped past questions about tournament seeding and national title expectations with the same effortless control they’d shown in their second-half dismantling of Florida State.
No. 1 overall seed? That’s for the committee to decide.
Best team in the country? Just trying to get better.
The favorite to win it all? Still got six games to play, my man.
OK, it’s Duke. They’ve been here before, and the lingo is engrained, even for the freshmen who are living all this for the first time. They expected to be here, champions of the ACC and again atop the college basketball universe.
Crazy thing is though, none of that seemed particularly likely just a week ago.
With Zion Williamson sidelined, Duke didn’t look like a title contender. The Blue Devils dropped three of six without their biggest star, narrowly escaped a home loss to lowly Wake Forest, were utterly demolished by their biggest rival twice. The flaws — poor shot selection, brutal perimeter shooting, a thin bench, the lack of a veteran presence — all seemed so obvious.
Then Williamson returned, and all those problems were swept under a 6-foot-7, 285-pound rug.
“When Zion was out, teams were really doubling down on RJ [Barrett], when he was attacking things,” point guard Tre Jones said. “So with Zion being back, they leave me even more now, and I was able to step up and make plays, and that can open it up for them to play their games, too.”
Consider this: Duke had 44 points in the paint Thursday against Syracuse. That tied for the most the Orange had allowed all season. A day later, Williamson and Co. posted 50 in the paint against North Carolina, the most the Heels had surrendered in eight years. And on Saturday, against a Florida State team that downright embarrassed Virginia in the lane and on the boards in the ACC semifinal, Duke once again dominated the paint, finishing with a 42-18 advantage over the Seminoles. That, too, tied a season high allowed by FSU.
Can’t shoot from the perimeter? Maybe it doesn’t matter.
“We believe we’re a good offensive team,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’re more balanced, and we have a lot of confidence. They have confidence in one another.”
A week ago, Duke looked like the clear second banana behind like 1-seeds in UNC and Virginia. Now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Blue Devils at the top of the heap, headed to Columbia, South Carolina for the first round of the NCAA tournament, a homecoming for Williamson, the Spartanburg, S.C. native.
A week ago, Barrett looked like a lone scorer trying to carry a team on his back. In the ACC tournament, Barrett went through stretches of brutal play, and none of it mattered. Williamson was dynamic. Bench players like Jordan Goldwire and Antonio Vrankovic had an impact. Jones, the defensive wizard, blossomed into a legitimate scoring threat.
Duke looked like a new team.
Or, more to the point, Duke looked like its old self.
“We talked to each other about, we came too far to lose,” Williamson said of Saturday’s championship game.
Krzyzewski joined the chorus downplaying the impact of seeding on Saturday, but he also offered reminders leading up to this game that Duke had its starting five on the court for just half its ACC games this year.
In fact, with that starting five on the court, Duke has just one loss all season — to another likely 1 seed, Gonzaga, by two points, in November. Williamson, Barrett, Jones and Cam Reddish had all of seven games of college experience under their belts back then. They’re a little more seasoned now.
Still, it was hard to walk away from Friday’s narrow win over North Carolina with any sense of inevitability. Sure, Duke looks dominant again. And no, even Florida State’s monsters couldn’t corral Williamson in the paint. But there’s that nagging feeling like the Tar Heels let the third installment of this year’s series get away, and somewhere along the lines, they might have one last crack at their nemesis.
So yes, this week’s ACC tournament proved Duke again belonged at the top of the ladder. It just didn’t cement the cast that they’ll be climbing another ladder to cut down the nets in Minneapolis.