There's no way to prepare for the biggest plot twist of the college basketball season, but a month ago, Duke was at least able to run a few fire drills.
After an eye poke forced Zion Williamson to miss the entire second half of the Blue Devils' Jan. 12 trip to Florida State, his teammates pulled out a thrilling 80–78 win in his absence. Two days later, Williamson was back in the lineup at home against Syracuse, but it was point guard Tre Jones's turn to leave with an early injury, suffering a sprained AC joint that his teammates could not overcome in a 95–91 overtime loss. Jones was back in the starting lineup before the end of the month.
Then on Wednesday, Williamson went down again, with scarier implications. His mild knee sprain hijacked the biggest night of the college hoops season so far and set the tone for Duke's 88–72 loss to North Carolina after only 30 seconds. Before the evening was over, everyone from Trae Young to Barack Obama had reached out to express support. With less than a month to go until Selection Sunday and few legitimate challengers to Williamson's national player of the year status or Duke's No. 1 seed credentials, the underlying question for Duke lovers and haters alike was, What now?
"It puts everyone in a state of trying to figure it out while you're playing an outstanding team," coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. "It's not an ideal situation."
That it is not, and the result was, as ESPN Stats & Info pointed out, just the third wire-to-wire loss Duke has taken at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the last 10 years. Krzyzewski and his staff know they still have one of the most talented rosters in the country, but for as long as Williamson is out, Duke is not the runaway national title favorite it was entering Wednesday. To stay on track for a special season without the services of the best player in college basketball for any extended amount of time, the Blue Devils need some or all of these six things to come to pass.
1. Consistency from Cam Reddish
As Williamson and R.J. Barrett sprinted out of the gate stuffing box scores this season, Reddish proved to be a little streakier on the offensive end. The 6'8" wing settled in as the clear third scoring option among Duke's touted freshmen, but not before a shaky showing in the Maui Invitational final loss to Gonzaga and a month-long stretch in which he didn't score more than 10 points in six straight games.
Reddish played the hero in January against Florida State, splashing a wide-open game-winning three to make the Seminoles pay for a blown coverage on an out-of-bounds play, and in last week's stunning comeback win over Louisville, hitting two deep threes from opposite wings to shatter the Cardinals' confidence and finishing with 22 points. But as he joins Barrett at the front of the usage line, he is basically no longer allowed to have a bad game from here on. (For what it's worth, his length and activity have made him a valuable and dynamic defender night-in, night-out.)
Reddish needed 23 shots to get his season-high 27 points against UNC, and his contested 25-foot brick with six seconds left on the shot clock combined with a lazy pass that led to a UNC lay-in to create a fitting 20-second snapshot of how uncomfortable he was being the center of attention.
2. Marques Bolden's defense can't attract attention
Williamson's ability to block shots from a foot above the rim all the way out to the three-point line altered everything about the way opposing offenses set up against Duke. Bolden is the only Duke player with more blocks per game (2.0) than Williamson, but the 6'11" center's athleticism is merely excellent, not once-in-a-generation. (He certainly can't do this, for example.) Gonzaga's versatile bigs found success dragging Bolden out to the perimeter, where he was much more likely to make a mistake.
While Javin DeLaurier and Jack White will be expected to contribute more inside in Williamson's absence, Bolden needs to find another gear on the end of the floor he specializes in, and bounce back from a no-show on the defensive boards while he's at it. The best teams in the country will be able to lure him out of his comfort zone.
3. Jack White, March Madness X-Factor
As mentioned above, the Blue Devils can expect a lot of points from Reddish and Barrett, but they'll need to find a third scoring source somewhere, even if no one is a one-for-one replacement for Williamson. White hasn't been the same since he shot 0-for-10 from three-point range in the loss to Syracuse, and he was 0-for-5 from the field on Wednesday night against the Tar Heels, but the shooting touch from outside is in there, somewhere, and his growth into a valuable rotation piece and leader should come to the forefront during the most important stretch of the season. It doesn't necessarily have to be White who takes on a bigger scoring load—Javin DeLaurier brought some early energy to get Duke going in the first half—but he would be the most logical candidate.
4. More desperation D from Coach K?
You may have heard about Krzyzewski's distaste for the zone defense through the years, but that doesn't mean he can't coach a mean one. A second-half switch away from man threw Louisville irreparably out of whack last week and reminded everyone how rarely Coach K has had to play that card this year compared with other recent seasons.
Another weapon deployed against the Cardinals that we could see more of: the full-court press, which took the steam out of North Carolina's second-half surge and helped even out the turnover battle (which Duke still lost, 20–15). Williamson may lead the team with 2.3 steals per game, but Tre Jones is one of the best pickpockets in the country, and he doesn't need an alley-oop recipient to be deadly in transition. Pressed into action Wednesday, DeLaurier proved his potential value as a full-time press-breaking weapon.
5. Don't fall in love with the three
Duke made a bad night worse by trying to bomb its way back into the game, finishing 8-of-39 from three to continue a disturbing run of poor shooting nights in Cameron. Since the Syracuse loss, the Blue Devils are 38-of-183 (20.7%) from long range at home, and they have dropped down to 323rd in Division I in three-point percentage on the year (30.6%). Wiping Williamson out of the offensive mix leaves Duke even more unbalanced if Barrett and Reddish get hooked on the long ball.
6. Recapture your early-season focus
Coaches and players on both sides didn't gloss over the fact that losing Williamson in the opening seconds threw Duke completely out of sorts from a mental perspective, and the Blue Devils' win over Virginia days after emerging from a similar panic caused by the Tre Jones injury provides a road map forward. But maybe this is the adversity that reminds everyone that those four top-20 freshmen Krzyzewski are capable of looking like freshmen after all. Multiple times on Wednesday night, a Duke hustle play or takeaway was immediately spoiled by a preventable turnover or a rushed possession. Meanwhile, UNC was merciless in transition, finding wide-open lay-ins inside and keeping its foot on the gas pedal to force those bad decisions. The opportunism, composure and spatial awareness that precede many of Williamson's highlight-reel dunks were even more glaring absences from Duke's performance than the dunks themselves.
The circumstances have been bizarre, to say the least, but in two of the last three games in emotionally charged environments, Duke has trailed by 20 points or more. That should embolden every top-25 team that gets a crack at the Blue Devils between now and late March, doubly so if the best player in the country misses extended time.