Luke DeCock

Duke, bucking trends, will try to win a national title its own way

In this era where every kid wants to be Steph Curry and deliver effortless rainbows from halfcourt, Duke is going the other way with a star that no one would ever have the presumption to imitate.

Can you win a national title without being able to make an outside shot with any kind of reliability?

With Zion Williamson, maybe you can. One way or another, Duke is going to find out.

You can win an ACC championship going 14-for-57 from long range. The Blue Devils took care of that Saturday night with a historic performance from Williamson, but also the usual wholesale scoring from R.J. Barrett and the newly activated slashing ability of Tre Jones.

Whether it will work over the long term is another question entirely, and one not often asked these days, when analytics-minded coaches create entire offenses designed for massive volumes of 3-pointers. Villanova has won two national titles that way, and was the only Power 6 team to actually take more 3s than 2s this season.

Duke could and probably should be a good-shooting team, but it isn’t. It’s the worst 3-point shooting team in the Power 6. Barrett is reasonably reliable and Williamson likes to sample one here and there, but Cam Reddish is prone to lengthy droughts, Jack White went through one of the lengthiest droughts on record and Alex O’Connell’s role has evaporated since Williamson came back.

The thing about Duke, especially the version of Duke that stormed through Charlotte to the 73-63 win over the Seminoles, is that it doesn’t need to take or make many. The Blue Devils have so many ways to beat you inside the arc and on the break, they can shoot 24.6 percent over three days against two top-15 teams and an NCAA tournament lock without blinking.

Jones was the biggest part of that Saturday, finally showing the aggression his coaches had been demanding from him. With Florida State sagging off of Duke’s shooters to double-team Williamson and Barrett even without the ball, willing to let the Blue Devils take all the 3-pointers they wanted, someone had to do something.

“If we wanted to win this game, I had to do more at the offensive end, with how much they were helping off me and daring me to shoot almost,” Jones said.

And, by taking control of the game during a critical part of the second half when the result was very much in doubt, he showed that maybe he does share the clutch gene his brother Tyus demonstrated in 2015.

“It’s in there for sure,” Duke assistant coach Nolan Smith said.

But it was more than that. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged that for much of the season, Jones was just happy running the team. That changed Saturday. Jones was activated. And he was needed.

“He just came out of his shell,” Smith said. “It’s a great thing for us going forward into the NCAA tournament.”

And of course there’s still Williamson, who in addition to his scoring dazzled in other way -- finding a way between Terance Mann and Trent Forrest with a bounce pass that covered half the length of the court and hit Jones in stride for a layup. Afterward, he stared at his hand, not only in the style of Patrick Mahomes but also someone who just discovered that bite by an irradiated spider the other day may have had some unexpected consequences.

At times Friday night, and again Saturday, Williamson looked like he was completely out of gas, only to summon up some other kind of magic, whether it was outfighting three North Carolina players for the rebound of his own missed shot Friday or piling up another 21 points Saturday. There was always a reserve there yet to be tapped, “an insatiable will to win,” Krzyzewski would say amid the celebration.

Williamson broke the Duke three-game tournament scoring record set by Art Heyman and the ACC freshman three-game record set by Phil Ford and there’s no way around this: When you’re knocking Heyman and Ford out of the record books, you’re rewriting history.

Duke has had good-shooting teams that exited the NCAA tournament early, but its last three national champions were all among the best in the country. This team, the worst at Duke from 3-point range in the past two decades, will try to rewrite a little history of its own, collectively.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, 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.