RJ Barrett, Duke Get ACC Tournament Win vs. Syracuse in Zion Williamson's Return

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2019

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 14: Zion Williamson #1 and teammate RJ Barrett #5 of the Duke Blue Devils react against the Syracuse Orange during their game in the quarterfinal round of the 2019 Men's ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 14, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Duke Blue Devils beat the Syracuse Orange 84-72 in the quarterfinals of the 2019 ACC tournament at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Zion Williamson returned to the lineup after he missed Duke's final five regular-season games because of a knee sprain. The ACC Player of the Year finished with 29 points, 14 rebounds, two assists and five steals in the victory. He was a perfect 13-of-13 from the field.

RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish added 23 and seven points for Duke, respectively.

Entering Thursday's game, ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi projected Duke to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Beating Syracuse won't push the Blue Devils into No. 1-seed territory just yet, but staying alive in the ACC tournament likely keeps that door open.


Duke the Runaway Title Favorites with Zion Williamson Back in the Lineup

Collectively, this wasn't a great performance from Duke. Reddish struggled mightily, and Barrett and Williamson carried most of the scoring load.

In general, Syracuse is a nightmare matchup for the Blue Devils. The zone defense is exactly the way to attack a Duke offense that can struggle to stretch the floor. During the regular season, the Orange held Duke to 25 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

On Thursday, the Blue Devils were 7-of-23 from three-point range.

Duke should look a little more like its usual self in the semifinals, and Williamson is a big reason for that.

He answered any questions about his right knee almost immediately, throwing down a right-handed jam 2:04 into the game.

Because he seemingly delivers multiple highlight-reel dunks every contest, one can potentially overlook how much more he contributes. Take out his scoring, and the combined value of his defense and rebounding would still probably make him Duke's best player.

Duke was effectively 3-3 without Williamson since he played one minute before getting injured against North Carolina on Feb. 20. Before that, it reeled off a 23-2 record—those two losses coming to Gonzaga and Syracuse by six combined points. There's a reason some people seriously entertained the notion a few months ago that the Blue Devils would've beaten the NBA's worst team. 

When Williamson was absent, Duke looked more vulnerable. The roster is pretty top-heavy, so losing a key player creates a big void. Now that Williamson looks to be at 100 percent, the Blue Devils are once again fully operational and the clear No. 1 national-title threat.


Syracuse's Zone Defense Will Make Orange Difficult Matchup in NCAA Tournament

Three years ago, Syracuse reached the Final Four as the No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region. Last year, the Orange were a No. 11 seed and had to beat Arizona State to get into the first round. They still managed a run to the Sweet 16.

Good luck to whoever has to share a region with Syracuse in this year's Big Dance.

Jim Boeheim's team pushed Duke hard despite being without leading scorer Tyus Battle. Frank Howard scored a team-high 28 points, and Buddy Boeheim was a pleasant surprise (15 points).

The Orange have obvious flaws. They're tied for 260th in scoring (69.5 points per game), 258th in free-throw percentage (68.4) and 289th in three-point percentage (32.3).

Turn the game into a track meet and Syracuse will have a hard time keeping up, especially if Battle's back injury lingers into the NCAA tournament. Playing an uptempo game isn't easy against the Orange's zone, though.

Syracuse has some bad losses this year—Georgia Tech at home and Connecticut in New York City stand out. Nobody will be all that surprised if the team exits the NCAA tournament in the first round.

But this could be yet another year in which the Orange head into March with low expectations and end up playing the role of spoiler.


What's Next?

Duke will play North Carolina in the ACC semifinals. The Blue Devils dropped both games against the Tar Heels in the regular season, although Williamson's injury limited him to one combined minute across those matchups. Syracuse, meanwhile, must wait until Selection Sunday to learn its NCAA tournament fate.


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