SportsPulse: While there are no real Cinderellas left in the tournament USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick explains why that’s okay and looks ahead to the Sweet 16.
WASHINGTON – For the most captivating college basketball player from a storied program who is expected to lead top-seeded Duke to the Final Four and projected as the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft, Zion Williamson doesn’t act like there’s pressure.
If there is, he’s hiding it behind the million-dollar smile and easy-going personality.
“I don’t really feel the pressure,” he said Thursday ahead of top-seeded Duke’s East Region semifinal game against fourth-seeded Virginia Tech (approximately 9:39 p.m. ET, CBS).
On a team with two other projected NBA lottery picks – freshmen R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish – it just seems like Williamson needs a monster game for Duke to win: 32 points and 11 rebounds in a 77-76 win against Central Florida in the second round; 31 points and 11 rebounds in a victory against North Carolina in the ACC tournament.
“And (as) for the monster game, I don’t feel the pressure to have that every game because we have a lot of talented players on this team,” he said. “So like we just move the ball and attack. And whoever has the hot hand, that’s who is going to have the monster night.”
That’s the right attitude to have, and Williamson just about always says the right thing, a credit to his poise and maturity.
But of Duke’s four losses this season, three came when Williamson was out with an injured foot. Yes, the Blue Devils won games without Williamson, but for Duke to win an NCAA championship for the first time since 2015, all signs point to dominant performances by Williamson.
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The Blue Devils don’t have a great three-point shooting team, but when they really needed threes against Central Florida, Williamson made two. When they really need points, Williamson is the best option. More often than not, he delivers.
And combine that with an engaging personality, Duke – which can be polarizing because of its success – has one of the more likable teams longtime Coach Mike Krzyzewski has had.
“I don’t really pay attention to fans embracing us, because we have our fans,” Krzyzewski said. “And we have people who don’t want us to win. And for me to get caught up in what percentage or whatever, I’m just glad that people are attentive to what we do. And if they’re attentive to what we do, it must be that we’re pretty good at doing it.
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“But this group is a group that can be liked by a lot. If you like basketball, you should like these kids. Whether you like me or not, that’s another question.”
Williamson is a major reason for that. With his size (6-feet, 7-inches, 285 pounds), strength, skill, athleticism and basketball IQ, the national player of the year favorite is one of the most unique college basketball players in decades.
He averages 22.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and shot 68.4 percent from the field, including 75% inside the three-point line. Get him the ball in the paint, and he’s almost impossible to stop without fouling.
Krzyzewski gushes about his likely one-and-done star who jokes with teammates just as easily as he creates highlight dunks that go viral.
“This kid is just one of a kind,” he said. “He’s certainly a special basketball player. But as a youngster, he has a maturity. It’s uncommon. It really is uncommon. And how humble he is and how fresh, exciting. It’s exquisite. Just the best. And it’s been an honor for me to be with him on this journey.”
If there is pressure on Williamson, Duke has tried minimize it.
“You have to make sure that you’re adapting to coaching a young group at this time in civilization, and not four years ago or five years ago,” Krzyzewski said. “And these guys have been really good to adapt to. Our program has incredibly high expectations from within and from without. And that’s good. And so if we succeed, we succeed famously. And if we do not succeed, we have tried to succeed famously. And I like that aspect of our program immensely.”
He also acknowledged, “Look, there’s pressure on us all the time.”
Junior forward Jack White is impressed with the way Williamson has navigated the season.
“He always handles it all in a great way,” White said. “Just being around him every day, if you didn’t know that, then you’d have no idea about all the attention he receives. He’s just like another guy on our team, really, in how he acts and carries himself. And as a teammate, he’s just great. He’s just all about winning. He just lets his game do the talking.”
Sophomore guard Alex O’Connell is conscious about the pressure – real or perceived – on Williamson.
“We keep it light around him,” O’Connell said. “We keep it chill (and) fun around him. At the end of the day, he’s a big option and a big key for our team, so we don’t want to put any extra pressure on him. He knows what he can do. We know what he can do.”
And that just might be enough to lead Duke to another title.