- After emerging from a physical and emotional gantlet over two and a half months of ACC play with its national title ceiling intact, Duke has all the makings of a clear-cut favorite in the NCAA tournament.
Duke did not have to defeat Florida State 73–63 in Saturday night's ACC title game to prove to the rest of college basketball that it was the team to beat heading into the 2019 NCAA tournament. Everyone with eyes realized that 24 hours earlier, when the Blue Devils outlasted North Carolina in a semifinal that had the pace and intensity of a championship game. A follow-up letdown against a deep Florida State team that presents some of the game's most awkward matchup quandaries could have been explained away.
Duke also did not have to throw superstar forward Zion Williamson back into action after he had missed the final five-plus games of the regular season with a mild right knee sprain. Williamson's injury was never considered serious, but coach Mike Krzyzewski would have been forgiven for dialing Williamson's workload somewhere under his regular Herculean rate until the road to the Final Four in Minneapolis began.
Duke did those things anyway, and as a result, the Blue Devils head into the tournament with the all the trappings of the clear-cut favorite—namely, momentum, swagger and the burden of expectation. The ACC champs are still shorthanded without experienced center Marques Bolden, and yet somehow stronger than ever.
"Killers kill," Williamson said of his team's mindset heading into the tournament, and while that made-for-a-T-shirt line was meant to be forward-looking, it accurately summarized how Duke handled its conference tournament competition. In no game did the Blue Devils ever look completely in control. But in every game, they turned on the afterburners in the final 10 minutes.
After a perfect 13-for-13 night from the field in an 84–72 win over Syracuse and a highlight-ridden performance against UNC, Williamson merely led all scorers with 21 points in the ACC championship game. His Zion Moment of the night was subtle but still sublime: a pinpoint bounce pass to a streaking Tre Jones in transition for a layup that pushed Duke's lead to seven early in the second half, creating separation that the Seminoles never closed back down.
The mark-your-calendars moment of the first week of NCAA tournament action will be when Williamson is set loose upon a No. 16 seed.
North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton, who will lead one of those likely No. 16 seeds into the tournament, got out ahead of the issue in a radio interview after the Eagles clinched their third-straight MEAC championship. "Zion, that’s like me playing with my six-year-old son in his bedroom one-on-one," Moton said. "I don’t want any parts of that. ... Send us somewhere else."
Moton's pessimism aside, the formula for beating Duke at full strength exists, and several less-than-elite teams have made things much more interesting than they needed to be. But after two of the ACC's best teams came away empty-handed this weekend, the question remains whether anyone will be able to follow that formula on the biggest stage in college basketball.
Florida State and North Carolina both circled the wagons inside the three-point line, daring Duke to beat them with threes, but Williamson's hustle and feel around the basket made both opponents pay for every lapse in that defensive discipline.
Harrassed by assiduous defenders, second-leading scorer R.J. Barrett made several unsightly errors in Charlotte, and versatile wing Cam Reddish might as well have gotten lost on the way to Spectrum Center for all the offensive impact he made over Duke's three-game run. In response, Jones stepped up to hit several big shots, and junior Javin DeLaurier continued to be an energetic replacement inside for Bolden, whose timetable for return is still unknown.
The three losses Duke sustained with Williamson sidelined over the regular season's final weeks feel like they should be stricken from the record now that he is back—that's how comprehensively he sets the tone for this team. Less than two weeks after nearly losing to woebegone Wake Forest at home, the Blue Devils seem more comfortable compensating for each other's off nights with Williamson's transcendent play around as a safety net.
Whether or not the Blue Devils receive the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Sunday, after emerging from a physical and emotional gantlet over two and a half months of ACC play with their national title ceiling intact, they will certainly and justifiably be treated like it—and still it feels like they have more to prove.