Championship level play has eluded Duke lately. Zion’s imminent return should change that.

UNC and Duke battle in Chapel Hill

The UNC Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils battle in the regular season finale in Chapel Hill, NC Saturday night, March 9, 2019.
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The UNC Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils battle in the regular season finale in Chapel Hill, NC Saturday night, March 9, 2019.

After Zion Williamson stumbled to the court thanks to a failed Nike sneaker, Duke stumbled to the regular-season finish line.

The Blue Devils went 3-3 in their final six games, including a pair of losses to rival North Carolina in a pair of games where Williamson played 36 seconds in one and zero seconds in another.

That fact doesn’t mean the No. 3 Tar Heels (26-5, 16-2 ACC) have to refund their rightful claim to a share of the ACC regular-season championship.

It also doesn’t mean Duke (26-5, 14-4 ACC) feels poorly about itself entering the all-important postseason.

Williamson, Duke’s 6-7 forward, looked like a sure-fire ACC and national player of the year before he sprained his right knee on Feb. 20. He still may win those awards because averaging 21.6 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman remains impressive.

For Duke to claim the biggest rewards of this season, a trip to the Final Four and a national championship, they’ll need Williamson back and healthy the rest of this month and into April.

Everything points to that being possible, which is why the Blue Devils were steadfast in their belief that better days are ahead even in the aftermath of Saturday night’s 79-70 loss to their fierce rival UNC at the Smith Center.

Williamson will return to five-on-five practice work on Monday. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he’ll play Thursday at when Duke opens its ACC tournament play in Charlotte provided all goes as expected this week.

“Now, we’ve got to regroup,” Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones said.

It’s an odd time of the year to be talking about a reset, but those are the cards Duke has been dealt this season.

There’s legitimate concern about how Williamson’s stamina will be affected by his absence and how he’ll fit back in with the Blue Devils for such critical games.

It’s easy to remember the 2011 NCAA tournament when Kyrie Irving returned from his toe injury. Duke looked like a national championship team before he went down in December 2010. The Blue Devils won the ACC championship without him, but when he returned for the NCAA tournament they were bounced in the Sweet 16.

Chemistry does matter.

Still, now as then, returning one of the nation’s best players to the lineup is never a bad idea no matter the season.

Krzyzewski admits Duke needs consistency in its play. The Blue Devils haven’t been bad without Williamson, they just haven’t been great.

“They’ve shown that when they’re together, they’re very good,” Krzyzewski said. “And we’ve been good -- not real good -- without Zion. The kids have fought but it’s inconsistent. It’s not at the level that’s needed to win a championship. It’s at the level of being good and in order to win a championship you have to be outstanding. So these guys will react quickly. It depends upon Zion, his shape. I think it will happen quick.”

Duke played better in longer stretches against UNC on Saturday night than it did on Feb. 20. When the Tar Heels blasted Duke 88-72 that night, they scored 62 points in the paint.

On Saturday night, even after losing 6-11 junior center Marques Bolden to a sprained knee ligament early, Duke blocked seven shots, controlled UNC’s transition game better and the Tar Heels managed just 32 points inside.

Duke’s 23 percent second-half shooting doomed it to another loss, but that’s more a sign of the Blue Devils not being capable of greatness without Williamson. The margin for error is razor thin and something like Cam Reddish missing 11 of his 12 second-half shots after a sterling first half was enough to kill Duke’s chances of winning.

At this time of year, it takes a great team to beat UNC at the Smith Center. Just look at Virginia (28-2, 16-2 ACC) which pulled off the feat on Feb. 11 and rightfully claimed the No. 1 seed for the ACC tournament because of that 69-61 win.

After a day off on Sunday, the Blue Devils return to practice Monday in search of greatness. They’ve shown it plenty of times this season.

The prevailing feeling in Duke’s locker room Saturday night was that getting back to the lab, as the players’ say when referencing practice and film work, will help the Blue Devils find greatness again.

That and the return of a super talent like Williamson, of course.

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.