CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — You want to put a Zion-sized asterisk on North Carolina’s sweep of Duke, its share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title and its ascendance to serious NCAA tournament No. 1 seed? You go right ahead. Roy Williams isn’t here to stop you, and he also isn’t here to care.
When asked about Zion Williamson’s absence after the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils 79-70 here Saturday night, the Carolina coach cut off the question and responded, “Frankly, my dear…”
Ol’ Roy refrained from finishing Clark Gable’s famous line from “Gone With the Wind,” because the product of Asheville, North Carolina, prefers to converse in Smoky Mountain Cornponese and say “dadgum” and “frickin’” instead of cuss words. That’s how he rolls, straight off the turnip truck. But his sentiment is understood and legitimate.
He doesn’t give a damn and shouldn’t give a damn.
Don’t ask Williams to apologize for the fact that the best player in college basketball played a total of 30 seconds in the 80-minute home-and-home matchup with North Carolina. Not his problem.
Really, the problem belongs to the NCAA tournament selection committee. It now must find a way to prioritize three powerful teams from the ACC: North Carolina, which swept Duke; Duke, which swept Virginia; and Virginia, which won the only meeting with the Tar Heels, in Chapel Hill.
Two of them quite likely deserve No. 1 seeds. Good luck figuring out which two.
The plot certainly has twisted since The Shoe Blowout That Changed College Basketball on Feb. 20. At that point, Duke was a clear No. 1 and seemingly cruising toward the overall No. 1 NCAA seed.
Now it’s the Blue Devils who are the least-known commodity of the three ACC powers, in need of showing something at the league tournament in Charlotte to restore its rep. Now it’s North Carolina that looks like a prime national title contender and perhaps the ACC team most worthy of Big Dance geographic preference (first two rounds in Columbia, South Carolina, then on to Washington, D.C.). Unless, of course, that primacy is bestowed upon Virginia, which is undefeated against everyone not named Duke and has zero bad losses to explain away.
Carolina looks really good. Virginia looks really good. Duke looks like a team waiting for the one-man cavalry unit to ride to the rescue.
On a night when another Blue Devil went down with a knee injury — this time starting center Marques Bolden, just 2½ minutes into the game, an eerie double-down of bad luck against the Heels — Mike Krzyzewski still could depart the Dean Dome feeling optimistic. His depleted team battled. It simply needs Zion to return to the lineup and return to Player of the Year form.
“If Zion’s healthy and whatever,” Krzyzewski said, “we’ll have a chance.”
Williamson is expected to return to five-on-five practice and contact drills Monday. He is expected to play when the Blue Devils start ACC tourney play Thursday. If he looks good and they look good — better than the team that has gone 3-3 in his absence — you have to consider Duke a national title contender.
“We’re going to be good,” said R.J. Barrett, Williamson’s freshman sidekick. “We’ve just got to get back in the lab.”
Meanwhile, the lab has spit out a fully formed contender in Carolina. But this is the rarest of all Carolina teams — one that has been underappreciated and snuck up on the sport.
From the opening 118-point barrage Duke dropped on Kentucky on Nov. 6, the Blue Devils have absorbed all heat and light in the sport like a black hole. They have been the story, to the exclusion of all others — up to and including a program eight miles away that normally attracts plenty of attention and hype.
Hard to believe, but little ol’ North Carolina has snuck up on everyone.
“Perhaps,” Williams said, momentarily willing to consider his team underrated before veering away from it. “But I really don’t get into that. … I don’t read the internet, I still don’t know whether it’s tweet or twit. I don’t read the junk.”
“The junk” has fixated on the Duke freshmen, their NBA prospects, and then Zion’s knee. Meanwhile, the Heels and their anachronistic lineup — three seniors of great value and impact, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams — went and won a share of the ACC title alongside Virginia.
(True, this UNC team also has a couple of brassy freshmen who could well wind up in the NBA draft this summer, in point guard Coby White and wing Nassir Little. White was especially impressive Saturday night, dropping a nine-point burst on Duke that broke open the game. “He’s an NBA player,” Krzyzewski said.)
If there were any holdouts concerning Williams’ coaching acumen, they have been trampled by the results of the last few seasons. While the one-and-done freshmen were flocking to Lexington and Durham, Williams has reached two national title games, won one of them, came within a 25-foot buzzer-beater of winning both, and now has a team capable of another deep run.
“I couldn’t get any of those recruits that were going to Duke and Kentucky,” Williams said, explaining why he has these things called seniors. “ .. I’m fairly confident. You give me really good kids who will play really really hard, we’re going to win some games.”
They’ve won two games this year against hated rival Duke. Zion Williamson played a total of half a minute in those games. But Roy Williams isn’t giving those wins back.
If anything, both teams walked out of the Dean Dome with national title potential Saturday night. If Zion returns to being Zion. Carolina has no further need of proving itself to the committee or the nation at large.
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