Update: Duke announced Thursday that Zion Williamson will play. Read more here:
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No. 5 Duke will be the last ACC team to take the court for the league’s tournament this week and the anticipation will be heavy.
The No. 3-seeded Blue Devils headed to Charlotte Wednesday, a day ahead of their ACC tournament quarterfinal against either Syracuse or Pittsburgh at 9:30 p.m Thursday night, with a healed Zion Williamson in tow.
The ACC’s player of the year hasn’t appeared in a game since his left shoe famously ruptured, causing a right knee sprain, in the early seconds of an 88-72 loss to North Carolina on Feb. 20.
He’s been day-to-day ever since and Thursday is the day he’s expected to finally return to play for the Blue Devils (26-5).
Nothing adverse has happened during Williamson’s practice participation this week to change coach Mike Krzyzewski’s belief that he’ll have the 6-7, 285-pound forward in uniform for the ACC tournament. An official announcement from Duke on his status is expected Thursday.
Duke’s place in the NCAA tournament is secure, of course. But the Blue Devils’ seeding will certainly be impacted by how they play with their national player of the year candidate over what they hope is a three-day stint.
Ranked among the nation’s top five teams all season, the Blue Devils fell to their current low point of No. 5 this week. Duke went 3-3 over its last six regular-season games, losing twice to rival North Carolina.
Considered a lock as an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed when healthy, the Blue Devils get a chance to show they are worth that seeding if they play well with Williamson.
“I think the kind of default setting of the committee and a lot of us is, with him, they’re clearly one of the four best teams in the country, if not the best team in the country,” ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said Wednesday. “So he needs to show, his sneakers need to stay intact, and then all will be right with their world.”
Krzyzewski and his Blue Devils believe a healthy Williamson will allow them to cure the ills that led to their late-season losses without him.
“Just the fact that we can hit a reset button,” Krzyzewski said last Saturday. “If Zion’s healthy and whatever, we’ll have a chance.”
Duke and No. 3 UNC, the ACC tournament’s second seed, are lined up for a third game of the season on Friday night. If the two rivals win their Thursday quarterfinal games, they’ll meet in the ACC tournament semifinals for the third consecutive season.
That game, even without winning the ACC championship, is a must, Lunardi said, for Duke to earn an NCAA tournament No. 1 regional seed.
“I don’t think they have to win (the tournament) to be a 1 seed, but I think they have to beat Carolina in the semis,” Lunardi said, “because, with or without Zion, if they go 0‑3 against the Tar Heels, I don’t see how you can make them a 1 seed ahead of them. And my opinion is, if they do beat them with him, then that almost counteracts the two losses which occurred largely without him.”
Duke will play without 6-11 junior center Marques Bolden, who suffered a sprained left knee during last Saturday’s 79-70 loss at UNC. He’s started 21 of Duke’s 31 games and leads the team in blocked shots (55).
His absence means 6-10 junior forward Javin DeLaurier and seldom-used senior 7-footer Antonio Vrankovic are Duke’s healthy big men for the ACC tournament, at least.
DeLaurier has nine starts this season and has been solid defensively of late. He has blocked 15 shots over Duke’s last seven games, including four at UNC last Saturday.
Williamson’s return will give Duke a boost in the paint as well. He is averaging 8.8 rebounds and is second on the team with 48 blocked shots.