DURHAM — Once again, UNC and Duke renewed hostilities last Wednesday night in a game that attracted former presidents and future Oscar winners. And once again, the key takeaway from the teams’ first meeting of the season is that they need to play again to settle things.
The Tar Heels led wire-to-wire, building a 22-point lead at one point and cruising to a 16-point win over the nation’s No. 1 team.
It was a statement-making victory for Roy Williams’ UNC squad, who moved into a three-way tie at the top of the league. With Duke getting a huge share of national media attention, based on its pair of phenomenal freshmen, and Virginia looking to clear its name after last year’s NCAA flameout against UMBC, the big win put Carolina firmly in the national discussion and helped the Tar Heels stake their claim to a one-seed and an opening weekend in nearby Columbia, S.C. Plus, with 30 points and 15 boards from Luke Maye, as well as 26 from Cameron Johnson, it served as a reminder that Duke doesn’t have a monopoly on star power.
Except the win came with an asterisk — one that might be maddening to Tar Heel fans, but an asterisk, nonetheless.
Zion Williamson, the Duke freshman forward who is second in the ACC in scoring (to teammate RJ Barrett), third in rebounding, first in steals and the runaway national leader in Q rating, went down with a sprained knee, courtesy of a blown-out shoe, 34 seconds into the game.
“The preparation that you would have for the game is obviously based on the players being there, especially [Zion] and RJ, who are the key guys,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
So, impressive as Carolina’s win may have looked, it came against a Duke team that was missing the nation’s top NBA prospect and a short-lister for Player of the Year. Yes, UNC was also down a big man — backup center Sterling Manley — and freshman glue guy Leaky Black, but it’s safe to say even the most die-hard UNC fan would admit that Williamson’s absence had a bit more impact on Duke than the two UNC guys to sit out had on the Heels.
Williams, who might just be the biggest UNC die hard around, admitted as much, saying afterward, “It was a huge blow for them, and having that happen during the course of the game you don’t have time to prepare for it. I hated that part of it, because I think he’s such a wonderful kid. That was a huge blow for them.”
So, UNC’s win, Maye’s performance and the rest of the overall stellar night for the Heels shouldn’t be erased. Virginia and Syracuse both lost to short-handed Duke teams this season. Still, it remains to be seen how Williams and Maye would handle Williamson.
The injury, by all accounts, could have been worse. Williamson missed Duke’s next two games — at Syracuse and Tuesday night at Virginia Tech — but Krzyzewski said on the weekly ACC coaches teleconference that Williamson was working his way back and would be cleared to play soon, seemingly confirming that he would be returning to the team. There had been speculation that, following the fluke injury, he might be better served by sitting out the rest of the season, much like football players skipping bowl games. That option doesn’t appear to be on the table for Williamson.
The injury has given Duke the opportunity to make some lineup changes. Guard Alex O’Connell replaced Williamson in the starting lineup and responded with 20 points on 5-of-8 shooting from three. Krzyzewski also played Joey Baker, a freshman shooter who had sat out the first 26 games of the season, seemingly for the purposes of being redshirted.
The two moves seemed to address what has been Duke’s biggest flaw this season — poor outside shooting. Duke’s .306 accuracy from three ranks 329th out of 353 Division I teams.
If O’Connell and Baker can provide an outside threat, it would free up Barrett to slash and attack. In Duke’s losses, he has tended to shoot, and miss, from outside in an effort to spark the team. He went 3-of-11 from three against UNC as Duke took more 3-pointers than twos.
Barrett and Williamson will still take the lion’s share of Duke’s shots, but with Barrett moving toward the basket, the move will help reduce Duke’s reliance on the three while simultaneously making the team more consistent from out there.
Will it work? Much like the early returns on the Tar Heels, it remains to be seen.