As much as tournament organizers will say that having Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn qualify for the Final Four is fine by them, there is no doubt that losing forward Zion Williamson and the incredible class of Duke freshman has hurt the glamour of the big event coming to Minneapolis this weekend.
It’s hard to remember a college basketball player who made the impact Williamson did on and off the court. And this week Williamson and forward RJ Barrett made the Associated Press’ All-America first team, the first freshmen teammates to unanimously make that team.
But Williamson was the star. He was as popular as any NBA player wherever he appeared and attracted huge crowds, including former President Barack Obama. I have seen a lot of college basketball stars in my reporting career and Williamson has been as popular as any of them.
At the 1992 Final Four in Minneapolis, there were standout players such as Duke’s Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, named the tournament’s most outstanding player; and Michigan’s Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard.
The 2001 Final Four, also held at the Metrodome, featured Duke’s Shane Battier, Jay Williams, and Mike Dunleavy; and Arizona’s Loren Woods and Richard Jefferson.
And while that 1992 tournament featured two iconic teams in Duke and Michigan, no single player had the star power of Williamson, not even Laettner or Webber.
As the headline in the Durham Herald Sun said this week: “Duke is done, and so is Zion Williamson, too soon for college basketball.”
During the regular season and ACC tournament, he averaged 22.1 points on 69.3 percent shooting, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 2.1 assists and 1.8 blocks. In the NCAA tournament, he was even more dominant. In four games he averaged 26.0 points on 61.6 percent shooting to go along with 8.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 1.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
When the dust settles on this college basketball season, the biggest story will be Duke’s failure to reach the Final Four.
Tom Izzo’s Michigan State program is as successful as any in the country, and the stories around the Virginia, Texas Tech and Auburn teams are fantastic. But Duke was the story in college basketball this year. Their collection of talent was the best since Michigan’s “Fab Five” teams.
After Duke’s 68-67 loss to Michigan State in the East Region final, ESPN updated its NBA mock draft and ranked four of the Duke freshmen this way (presuming they decide to enter the draft): Williamson No. 1 overall, Barrett No. 2, forward Cam Reddish No. 6 and point guard and former Apple Valley star Tre Jones No. 31.
It’s hard to imagine Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, already a basketball Hall of Famer, couldn’t get that group to the Final Four. But there had been signs the team wasn’t in for a historic season after barely beating Central Florida 77-76 in the second round of the NCAA tournament and Virginia Tech 75-73 in the Sweet 16.
Next season, Duke will bring in another good recruiting class but nothing like this one. They have commitments from center Vernon Carey (ranked No. 3 overall, according to 247 Sports), forward Wendell Moore (No. 22) and guard Boogie Ellis (No. 34). Krzyzewski still is trying to land Matthew Hurt, the 6-9 Rochester John Marshall forward (No. 8), as well.
But Duke’s 2018 freshman class was unique. Barrett was the No. 1 recruit in the country, Reddish was No. 2, Williamson was No. 5 and Jones was No. 15.
After the Michigan State game, Krzyzewski was asked about what the future holds for Duke.
“I’d rather not talk about the future right now,” he said. “Let’s deal with the moment, and also give respect to the moment, the moment of [Michigan State’s] victory and the moment of our season ending. And I’d rather just deal with that.”
Coach K praises Izzo
Krzyzewski and former UCLA coach John Wooden are tied for the most Final Four appearances in NCAA history with 12. But after the loss to Michigan State, Coach K said there is no question Izzo is just as deserving of taking his team to Minneapolis after the Spartans’ great performance in the Elite Eight.
This will be Izzo’s eighth Final Four appearance, ranking him fifth all time behind Krzyzewski, Wooden, former North Carolina coach Dean Smith (11) and current Tar Heels coach Roy Williams (nine).
What Izzo has done at Michigan State is as impressive as any college basketball coach in the country, even if he sometimes flies under the radar.
“They’re going to Minneapolis, so they’re going to have a chance to cut down the nets. That’s the very first step,” Krzyzewski said. “Look, Tom has a great program. And they have terrific teams each year. And they’re always, just like us, they’re always knocking on the championship door.
“In going forward, with the system that they have, the defense they play, the rebounding and [Izzo], they have a heck of a chance. They have a heck of a chance to win it all.”
Best team left?
It has been 19 years since Michigan State won the NCAA championship, the last time any Big Ten team cut down the nets.
Everyone around the Spartans and the Big Ten knows how important it would be for them to win this title in Minneapolis. The Spartans will be favored against Texas Tech on Saturday night, and they also might be favored over Virginia or Auburn should they reach Monday’s title game.
After a three-game losing streak from Jan. 27 to Feb. 5, the Spartans are the hottest team in college basketball. They have won 14 out of 15 contests, only losing 63-62 at Indiana on March 2.
But what’s more impressive is that the Spartans have done all of this after losing junior guard Joshua Langford, one of their best players, to a season-ending ankle injury on Dec. 29. He was averaging 15 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game when he was hurt.
Izzo said there is no question this is one of the toughest teams he has ever coached, and they’ll be ready for whatever comes at them this weekend.
“I think the mental toughness has [developed] because we had to adjust to survive,” he said about enduring injuries. “I think it brought our staff and them closer because we changed how we did some things. … It’s been an interesting, unique but very exhilarating way to do things the last two months.”