Zion Williamson was the talk in many corners of college basketball before the big rivalry game Wednesday between Duke and North Carolina.
A day later, the Blue Devils freshman was the talk in all corners of college basketball.
In Wednesday’s first minute, the once-in-a- generation talent ripped through his shoe and, thankfully, did something less damaging to his knee in the process. Thursday, he was being discussed more than ever, somehow, as this question led sports debates near and far: Should Williamson shut it down and prepare to move on to the NBA?
Either you’re on the side that the incredibly bouncy, 289-pound Duke forward should not play college ball again to save himself for a gazillion dollar shoe deal, or your opinion is he should play if healthy and try to lead Duke to Minneapolis’ Final Four.
Williamson’s opinion will matter most, though. He and his family will make decisions after what Duke announced Thursday was a Grade 1 knee sprain and listed him as day to day. A quote from him before his injury and Duke’s 88-72 loss to No. 8 North Carolina could be a good hint, though:
“Even if they would have had the NBA [out of high school] road,” Williamson told NCAA.com on Tuesday. “I still would have come to college. You’re never going to get this experience again.”
As Williamson examines his options, we have time to analyze another big question: What happens to Duke, the No. 1 team and projected top overall NCAA tournament seed? What if Williamson is done? What if he’s only ready to return in the postseason?
Any extended Williamson absence boosts the odds for Tennessee, a top title contender despite falling from No. 1 after an 86-69 blowout loss at Kentucky on Saturday.
Virginia couldn’t figure out Duke twice with Williamson, so maybe the Cavaliers will rise to the top of the ACC if he’s out. And Gonzaga is expected to take over the No. 1 ranking next week, which seems fair as the Zags are No. 2 and beat a healthy Duke in November in Maui.
Coach K’s squad will likely remain as the top NCAA seed in predictions until more is known on Williamson’s status or when the Blue Devils lose again, bracket analyst Joe Lunardi said on ESPN on Thursday.
“If he doesn’t return, the committee by rule will evaluate the games without him,” Lunardi said. “If he does return, then it’s a question of how quickly and how cleanly they return to their former level of play. They’re a 1 seed still because of body of work and we don’t have enough information yet.”
Duke’s weaknesses were exposed vs. UNC: three-point shooting (8-for-39) and taking care of the ball (20 turnovers). Apple Valley native Tre Jones, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish are still a gifted freshmen trio, but they face a difficult remaining schedule. Three of Duke’s last five games are on the road, including at Syracuse, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. The Tar Heels, who also have a victory vs. Gonzaga, are a team to watch for Minneapolis, especially if they win the Duke rematch in Chapel Hill, N.C., on March 9.
Duke isn’t the only Final Four-caliber team dealing with injuries. Michigan State just lost starting center Nick Ward, likely for the rest of the regular season, because of a broken hand, after already losing guard Joshua Langford (ankle) for the season. Kentucky will be without Minneapolis native and senior forward Reid Travis for at least a couple weeks because of a knee injury he suffered against Missouri on Tuesday. Kansas’ streak of 14 consecutive Big 12 titles is in jeopardy with starting center Udoka Azubike (torn ligaments in right hand) done for the season and standout wing Marcus Garrett (high ankle sprain) sidelined indefinitely.
Injuries to several key players could shape the Minneapolis Final Four field, but the results to watch most closely are the final words on Williamson’s knee exams, and on his decision about his future.
Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @Marcus_R_Fuller