Zion Williamson injury, Boeheim accident leave a dark cloud over latest Duke-Syracuse clash

Duke’s Krzyzewski speaks about Zion Williamson’s injury and loss to UNC

Star freshman Zion Williamson is injured in opening moments and doesn't return as UNC wins 88-72
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Star freshman Zion Williamson is injured in opening moments and doesn't return as UNC wins 88-72

It’s the ACC’s nouveau rivalry, born of television and expansion rather than geography and tradition.

The 10th game between Duke and Syracuse since the Orange joined the ACC in 2013 was set up as a continuation of the revelry on Saturday night. ESPN’s GameDay would be joining an anticipated crowd of 36,000 to watch Zion Williamson and his band of freshmen brothers seek revenge for a Syracuse overtime win at Duke last month.

In the span of a couple of hours Wednesday night, that all came unraveled.

In Durham, Williamson blew out his Nike shoe and sprained his right knee 34 seconds into No. 1 Duke’s 88-72 loss to No. 8 North Carolina.

In Syracuse, Orange coach Jim Boeheim was involved in a traffic accident on a dark interstate highway that left a pedestrian, 51-year-old Jorge Jimenez, dead.

Even though no charges have been filed in the investigation and police officials don’t expect any to be, ESPN pulled its signature weekly celebration of the sport away from the Duke-Syracuse game.

Boeheim, 74, will coach the 6 p.m. game, Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said in a statement on Friday.

“This is a very difficult time,” Wildhack said. “I know that coach Boeheim’s players gain strength from him, just as he gains strength from his players. Our entire community gains strength from each other. With this in mind, and after thoughtful consideration, I have respectfully decided coach Boeheim will resume his coaching activities and will coach in (Saturday) night’s game with Duke. We continue to extend our deepest sympathies to the Jimenez family as they continue to mourn this tragic loss.”

The 6-7 freshman Williamson is listed as day-to-day but won’t play just three days into his recovery. Duke announced Saturday morning that he is unavailable for the game.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Thursday night on his SiriusXM radio show that all caution will be taken before returning Williamson, a leading candidate for national player of the year, to competition.

“There’s no rush,” Krzyzewski said. “You want to make sure he’s completely at 100 percent. We know we’re an NCAA (tournament) team. We’ve won 23 games with great competition, and we’re going to keep moving on, but we want to be – want to make sure we’re at 100 percent when we enter that one-and-done period called March Madness.”

So, for the second time this season, Duke (23-3, 11-2 ACC) faces Syracuse (18-8, 9-4) missing a starter.

Hostile venue

Back on Jan. 16, Cam Reddish fell ill minutes before tip off between the teams at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Tre Jones suffered a separated shoulder a little more than five minutes into the game and the Orange posted a 95-91 overtime win.

Reddish returned the next game, Jones missed two games and Duke reeled off nine consecutive wins before Williamson’s injury contributed to its loss to UNC on Wednesday night.

So that leaves Duke heading into a hostile venue, carrying a perfect 6-0 mark in true road games, trying to figure out how to win without perhaps the nation’s top player.

Duke has 6-7 freshman forward RJ Barrett, himself a national player of the year candidate, as the ACC’s leading scorer (23.1 points per game). Freshmen starters Reddish and Jones are full strength.

Poor shooting night

But, without Williamson, Duke’s defense struggled to keep UNC from getting shots in the lane on Wednesday night. The Tar Heels scored 62 of their 88 points in the paint, with 6-8 senior forward Luke Maye punishing Duke with 30 points and 15 rebounds.

Williamson is second on the team in blocked shots (48) so his rim protection will be missing if he indeed doesn’t play. Marques Bolden, Duke’s 6-11 junior center and leading shot blocker (51), will need to be more of a factor.

But the perimeter players also have to force the Orange into lower percentage shots while forcing turnovers.

Offensively, Duke faces the Orange’s renowned 2-3 zone coming off a poor shooting night. The Blue Devils hit only 8 of 39 3-pointers (20.5 percent) against UNC. In the loss to the Orange in January, Duke made 9 of 43 (20.9 percent).

Williamson would help Duke inside by taking passes in the middle of the zone. Instead, that job is likely to fall on the versatile Barrett. He’ll be asked to either shoot, drive to the rim or distribute to an open teammate in the zone’s gaps.

Only Barrett and Reddish reached double-figures in scoring against UNC. Contributions from Jones and Bolden will be needed if Duke is to avenge that earlier loss to Syracuse.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.