Will Zion Williamson play against North Carolina?
Whether or not his absence swung the balance toward UNC the first time around, the answer to this impending question just might change everything on March 9 — no matter what the decision is.
After Williamson went down with a knee injury 36 seconds into the first UNC-Duke game, the Blue Devils have been a very different team. The team has struggled to find its identity without the future lottery pick, who had been accounting for 26 percent of his team's offense until he blew out his shoe and sprained his knee.
“You can’t put together a well-oiled machine in a couple practices to play in this conference at a level when you lose a kid like that,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the Wake Forest game, according to GoDuke. “And there is no other kid like that. He’s probably the National Player of the Year.”
Since that time, that scoring power and celebrity has been missing for Duke. The Blue Devils have had a 3-2 record without Williamson, losing as many games in five contests as the team did in the 25 previous ones with Williamson on the court. With a 16-point loss to UNC and a one-point win over Wake Forest as the low points of that run, the team has since slid from No. 1 down to No. 4 and was bypassed by the No. 3 Tar Heels in the most recent poll.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels have not lost a game since Feb. 11. Including a win over the Demon Deacons in the game before Duke, UNC has won six in a row, and closed out its first-ever season with an undefeated ACC road record after beating Boston College on Tuesday.
While UNC is hitting its stride, Duke could be much closer to hitting its own if Williamson came full circle and returned in the Tobacco Road rivalry game Saturday. But as to whether that might be possible, Krzyzewski wouldn’t say definitively one way or the other.
“Zion actually did some basketball stuff this afternoon,” Krzyzewski said after the Wake Forest game, according to GoDuke. “I don’t think he’ll be ready for Saturday. I have to be careful not to push this.”
In a later question, he clarified his comments and hinted that he could still play.
“He’d love to play Saturday too, if he’s ready,” Krzyzewski said.
If the 6-foot-7 forward was available on Saturday, head coach Roy Williams and company would have to provide answers to that mismatch on both ends of the floor. The first time around, the Tar Heels dodged that bullet as Luke Maye seized an opportunity to be his team's leading scorer. Maye led the way to a 62-28 advantage in paint points for North Carolina.
That wouldn't be possible to re-create a second time if Williamson was there to command the low block. And that would force the Tar Heels to find other options to score points that it didn't have to count on last time.
In the first win at Cameron Indoor Stadium, UNC shot an abysmally low 10 percent from behind the arc.
Individual players hardly ever outshine the hype that surrounds the UNC-Duke rivalry game around the country. Zion Williamson, with his size and his skill, has the potential to do that.
"Zion's a different bird, there's no question about that," Roy Williams said ahead of the first matchup. "We tried to recruit him very, very hard. He's got a combination of skills that I've never seen before, and there's a lot of attention — but he deserves it. He's backed it up, he's pretty good."
Without having to face Williamson, North Carolina would be a long way toward its first regular-season sweep of Duke since 2009. But with him back, the team has an uphill battle with a completely different Duke team on its hands.
Ahead of Saturday, all that remains to be seen is who finds the advantage. One way or another — after a Friday update on his availability — Williamson will find a way to influence the final score as both teams head into postseason play.
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