Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Zion Williamson needed only two minutes to remind the college basketball world of something critically important.
He’s back. And he’s healthy.
After an explosive performance in Duke’s 84-72 victory over Syracuse in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, it’s safe to eliminate lingering questions about the Blue Devils and their place in the NCAA hierarchy. When Zion is healthy, they’re the March Madness favorite.
Playing in his first game since he suffered a knee sprain Feb. 20 at North Carolina, Williamson followed up his rim-rattling dunk with a couple important plays that won’t make the highlight reel.
The freshman skied for an offensive rebound that led to Paschal Chukwu’s second foul just three minutes into the game. He also found RJ Barrett for a wide-open triple, grabbed his second steal and made a second layup. All important; nothing spectacular.
Then, Williamson took over the game.
After burying a triple from the left wing, he rocked Spectrum Center with a thundering alley-oop flush.
Zion added an offensive rebound and putback layup before taking a deserved rest on the bench with 9:27 remaining in the first half. He’d already amassed 15 points, five rebounds, four steals and one assist on perfect 7-of-7 shooting.
That 10-and-a-half-minute stretch was all anyone needed to see. You could’ve turned off the game, ignored the final score and acknowledged the impact Williamson made for the Blue Devils. They won by 12 points, but the result felt like an aftershock.
Zion alone provided the earthquake.
Following his injury, Duke mustered a 3-3 record and was a stiff breeze from losing at the buzzer to Wake Forest. Four of the Blue Devils’ seven least efficient rebounding games and four of their seven lowest defensive turnover rates this season came during that stretch, per Sports-Reference.
That should be no surprise given his production in both categories, and it immediately reverted to normal Thursday. Along with nine first-half rebounds, Zion was a defensive menace.
Brant Wilkerson-New @BrantGNR
Duke has 10 steals in the first half tonight, five of which belong to Zion. Devils had a total of 21 in the five games he missed.
Forgotten among everything else ridiculous that he does, he ranks 20th nationally in steal rate.
Williamson’s seven offensive rebounds led to 12 second-chance points. He finished with a massive stat line of 29 points, 14 rebounds, five steals and two assists on 13-of-13 shooting.
Yes, Duke simultaneously showed its flaws.
The Blue Devils had 18 turnovers, which the Orange turned into 15 points. They continued to struggle from three-point range and trudged to a 7-of-23 mark. Duke shot 67.8 percent at the free-throw line, where Williamson himself went a dreadful 2-of-9.
Turnovers, perimeter efficiency and free-throw percentage are the Blue Devils’ three biggest weaknesses. All three flared up Thursday, and that’s what kept a short-handed Syracuse in the game.
But Zion’s contributions ensured the shortcomings didn’t matter.
Brian Rauf @brauf33
Duke looked out of sync tonight but still beat Syracuse by double digits. Zion makes such a huge difference for the Blue Devils on both ends
The rest of the roster played about as poorly as possible, yet Duke managed a 12-point win over an NCAA tourney lock. Few teams have a margin for error that massive against quality competition.
According to OddsShark, the Blue Devils entered the night as the betting favorite to win the national championship. Had they struggled while Williamson seemed he wasn’t fully fit, reconsideration of that standing would’ve been justified.
Mike Krzyzewski‘s team did the first part. Williamson, though, quickly showed off his dominant ability and sustained it over 36 minutes.
He’s back. He’s healthy. And Duke is officially the frontrunner.