College Sports

North Carolina eyin’ Zion; will he or won’t he play against Tar Heels?

UNC’s Roy Williams on preping for a Duke team with and without Zion

UNC basketball coach Roy Williams talks about preparing and motivating his team for the rivalry game with Duke in Chapel Hill in the wake of the injury to Duke star Zion Willamson.
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UNC basketball coach Roy Williams talks about preparing and motivating his team for the rivalry game with Duke in Chapel Hill in the wake of the injury to Duke star Zion Willamson.

If the delicate thrusts and parries of a rivalry are to your taste, the salt and pepper of what essentially is an interminable cold war, the cloud of uncertainty surrounding Zion Williamson’s status for Saturday is positively delicious.

As gamesmanship goes, this is some serious gourmet stuff.

Rather than rule Williamson in or rule Williamson out, Mike Krzyzewski on Friday pushed a public announcement on Williamson’s status back to 11 a.m. Saturday, seven hours before Duke and North Carolina meet in Chapel Hill, assuming ESPN isn’t running behind.

Williamson, the Duke coach said, is “doubtful,” letting North Carolina dangle for another 22 hours.

This much is not doubtful: Beyond any doubt, this will be dragged out to the last possible minute.

It’s a beautiful thing, if you like that sort of thing.

It recalls a certain Sunday morning in 2011, when Duke sent Kyrie Irving onto the court at the Greensboro Coliseum for a very prolonged and visible workout in the hours before the Blue Devils played North Carolina for the ACC title, the freshman point guard having been out for months because of a toe injury.

Irving didn’t play – Duke beat North Carolina for the championship, and Irving returned a few days later, against Hampton in the first round of the NCAA tournament – but the will-he-or-won’t-he speculation took up more of the morning than the waiting line for lunch at Stamey’s.

It’s deja shoe all over again.

Krzyzewski, inadvertently or deliberately, has once again left North Carolina preparing for two different Dukes on Saturday.

Not that North Carolina hasn’t been on the other side. In 2009, Ty Lawson jammed his right big toe on the basket stanchion in practice the day before the season finale against Duke. “No status,” was the official word on the eventual ACC player of the year heading into the game.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski isn't ruling Zion Williamson out for Saturday night's game against North Carolina. Krzyzewski said Williamson, who is out with a sprained knee, is doubtful but a decision will be made on Saturday, March 9. 2019.

With the help of a painkilling injection, Lawson played 36 minutes in North Carolina’s win. (He then soaked the injured toe in an Epsom salt bath and missed the entire ACC tournament and North Carolina’s NCAA opener after his toe swelled to the point where he couldn’t get a shoe on his foot.)

This time, the foot is on the other hand.

“We’re still preparing like Zion is going to play,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Thursday. “And at the same they’re going to make that decision, so we have no say over it, so why worry about that part of it?”

Normally, you wouldn’t. But Williamson, as always, is a special case.

He exerts an outsized impact on the games in which he plays and, accordingly, North Carolina’s preparations. It’s clear at this point Duke is a many-splendored team with him and a mono-dimensional team without him. His presence requires a completely different approach than his absence.

Krzyzewski’s relative pessimism aside – he said Williamson still hasn’t had a full-contact practice, and would not Friday – it still feels like there’s every chance Williamson, ruled out at 11 a.m., is dressed and on the bench at 6 p.m. At that point, anything would be possible.

Or he waits for next week and Duke’s ACC tournament opener in Charlotte, giving him another four days of rest and practice. From a purely pragmatic perspective, it may even make more sense, although it’s hard to believe someone as competitive as Williamson wouldn’t want to try to beat North Carolina at the Smith Center if he’s able to any degree.

Check out photos from UNC's win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC Wednesday night, Feb. 20, 2019.

If he wanted to finish the season in a dull game, he could have gone anywhere. (Clemson, his second choice, hosts Syracuse on Saturday in what figures to be a rock fight somewhere approaching igneous on the spectrum.) Williamson came to Duke for a reason: to play with R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish and Tre Jones, and to win something.

Depending on what happens to Virginia earlier Saturday, here’s his shot – not to mention, a chance to add a new page to the Legend of Zion and a new wrinkle to a rivalry that isn’t exactly short on them.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.