As easy as No. 1 Duke has made winning basketball games look at times this season, the season has been anything but easy.
The latest speed bump hit Wednesday night thanks to Zion Williamson’s blown tire, er, Nike shoe not long after President Obama settled into his baseline seat at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Before Williamson even attempted a shot or grabbed a rebound, he was gone for good from Duke’s biggest home game of the season.
No. 8 North Carolina, its athletes armed with experience as well as talent, naturally took control of the game and never let up in dealing the Blue Devils a resounding 88-72 defeat.
Just as happened back on Jan. 14 when Tre Jones crashed to the court in the same building with a separated shoulder, the ultra-talented Blue Devils found themselves minus a starting player.
That night, Duke squandered what had been a 12-point first half lead to lose 95-91 in overtime to Syracuse.
The Blue Devils (23-3, 11-2 ACC), despite playing two entire games after that one without Jones, hadn’t lost another game after that one until UNC pummeled them on Wednesday night.
“It’s crazy that the two games we’ve lost here, something’s happened in the first part of the game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The preparation that you would have for the game is obviously based on the players being there, especially (Zion) and RJ (Barrett), who are the key guys. It puts everyone in a state of trying to figure it out when you’re playing an outstanding team. That’s not a good situation.”
Now, here Duke finds itself facing adversity again. Williamson has a sprained right knee and, though initial word is the ligaments are stable, no timetable has been established for his return.
He not only averaged 21.6 points per game this season but also a team-best 8.8 rebounds. He’s second on the team with 48 blocked shots and first in steals (57).
That’s quite the loss to overcome yet Duke doesn’t have time to pout. A trip to Syracuse (18-8, 9-4) for a Saturday night game is up next, followed three nights later by a game at Virginia Tech (20-6, 9-5).
In the immediate aftermath Wednesday night, Krzyzewski wasn’t ready to discuss what’s next even though he’s already formulating those plans.
“We just have to regroup,” Krzyzewski said. “We have to figure out what this means. We’re not going to draw any conclusions from this game, except the fact that we have a loss. That is a definite conclusion. But the fact of how we play, who we’re going to play, whatever we’re going to do, we have to come up with a game plan based on Zion not playing. Hopefully, he’ll be back playing sometime in the near future. So, that’s where we’re at.”
When Duke played without Jones, it relied on Barrett and Williamson even more than normal on offense. Defensively, the Blue Devils simply weren’t as effective. But Virginia shot poorly (making just 3 of 17 3-pointers) in losing 72-70 to a Jones-less Duke on Jan. 21.
Now that it faces life with Williamson, Duke must reinvent itself again.
Following his sudden departure against UNC, the Blue Devils attempted to rely on strong defense to help it get by. The Tar Heels shredded them, shooting 50.7 percent and scoring 62 of their 88 points from close-range shots in the lane.
“We kept trying to attack, get back in transition, take away their 3s,” Jones said. “But we didn’t play our best defensive game for sure. They were able to pick apart our weak spots. We were really flat.”
Krzyzewski and his staff will get to work designing new game plans without Williamson, a strong contender for national player of the year.
Duke has another one of those caliber of players in Barrett. Cam Reddish is capable of scoring 20 points a game, too.
The Blue Devils need to find a way to get their spacing on offense re-calibrated so they aren’t left devoid of driving lanes, forced to shoot 3-pointers late in the shot clock.
Duke has five regular-season games left, including tough road games at Syracuse, Virginia Tech and UNC. Though not certain, it’s very possible they’ll play all of them without Williamson.
Between now and the ACC tournament in Charlotte, Duke get another chance to prove it’s still a championship-caliber team even without all of its star players.