CHARLOTTE, NC – Following Saturday's Saturday tournament championship, Duke's stars escaped questions about tournament seeding and expectations for the national title with the same effortless control as when dismantling Florida State in the second half.
No. 1 global seed? It's up to the committee to decide.
Best team in the country? I'm just trying to improve it.
Favorites to win everything? I still have six games to play, my man.
OK, that's Duke. They've been here before and the jargon is rooted, even for freshmen who are all living this for the first time. They expected to be here, champions of ACC and again at the top of the university basketball universe.
The crazy thing, though, is that none of this seemed particularly likely just a week ago.
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With Zion Williamson put out, Duke did not look like a title contender. The Blue Devils lost three of the six players without their biggest star, narrowly escaped a home defeat by the humble Wake Forest and were completely demolished twice by their biggest rival. The flaws – poor shot selection, brutal shot at the perimeter, thin bench, lack of veteran presence – everything seemed so obvious.
Then Williamson came back, and all these problems were swept under a carpet of 6 feet 7 inches, 285 pounds.
"When Zion was out, the teams really doubled on RJ [Barrett]when he attacked things, "the leader Tre Jones I said. "So, with Zion coming back, they leave me even more now, and I've been able to play and play, and that can allow them to play their games too."
Consider this: Duke had 44 points in the Thursday painting against Syracuse. That's as much as the orange has allowed all season. A day later, Williamson & Co. recorded 50 points against North Carolina, the highest number of heels in eight years. On Saturday against a Florida State team that embarrassed Virginia in the corridors and boards of the ACC semi-finals, Duke once again dominated the painting, finishing 42-18 on the Seminoles. This also equaled a FSU-authorized season peak.
You can not shoot from the perimeter? Maybe it does not matter.
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"We think we are a good offensive team," said coach Mike Krzyzewski. "We are more balanced and we have a lot of confidence, they trust each other."
A week ago, Duke appeared to be the second banana behind behind probably 1 seed in UNC and Virginia. Joe Lunardi of ESPN now has the Blue Devils at the top of the list. He will travel to Columbia, SC, for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, a homecoming for Williamson, from Spartanburg, SC.
A week ago, Barrett looked like an isolated scorer trying to carry a team on his back. In the ACC tournament, Barrett went through periods of brutal play, and none of that was of any importance. Williamson was dynamic. Bench players such as Jordan Goldwire and Antonio Vrankovic had an impact. Jones, the defensive wizard, has become a legitimate threat.
Duke looked like a new team – or, more precisely, Duke looked like himself.
After six games with one knee injured, Zion Williamson made his comeback as if nothing had happened, leading Duke to the ACC tournament title and earning the MVP title.
"We talked to each other, we went too far to lose," Williamson said of Saturday's championship game.
Krzyzewski joined the choir downplaying the impact of the sowing on Saturday, but he recalled that before that match, Duke had his five starting players on the field for only half of his ACC matches this season .
In fact, with his first five teams on the field, Duke lost only one loss of the season – against another favorite, Gonzaga, by two points in November. Williamson, Barrett, Jones and Reddish cam had all seven games of academic experience to their credit at the time. They are a little more seasoned now.
Still, it was hard to come out of Friday's win over North Carolina with a sense of inevitability. Of course, Duke still looks dominant. And no, not even the monsters of Florida State could corrode Williamson in the painting. But there's that annoying feeling that the Tar Heels let slip the third episode of this year's series and that at one time or another they might have one last chance to get bored.
So yes, this week's ACC tournament proved that Duke was again at the top of the standings. But that does not mean that they'll climb another ladder to cut nets in Minneapolis.