Luke Make finished with 30 points and 15 boards and Cam Johnson chipped in with 26 points of his own as No. 8 North Carolina strolled into Cameron Indoor Stadium and dropped a hammer on the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils, winning 88-72 and moving into a three-way tie for first place in the ACC with No. 3 Virginia at 11-2.
The Tar Heels were dominant from the jump, and credit to them for pouncing on Duke when they had the chance, but that is hardly the story of the game.
Zion Williamson, the surefire No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the overwhelming favorite to sweep the 2019 National Player of the Year awards, went down with an injury to his right knee just 30 seconds into the game.
And now we wait.
Because as of this very moment, the single biggest story line of this college basketball season has become the status of Zion’s right knee. Coach K said after the game that the injury is a mild knee sprain, but that his status will not be known until tomorrow.
Until then, here are the three things that we can take away from this game:
1. THIS RESULT SHOULD UNDERLINE HOW MUCH ZION IMPACTS A GAME
What we saw on Wednesday night in Durham was the terrifying reality of what Duke is without their star attraction: Not all that good.
We can start on the defensive end of the floor, where Duke’s ability to defend the interior — which is quietly the best part of Zion’s game — was exposed. North Carolina scored 62 of their 88 points in the paint, as they were able to take advantage of the total lack of fear of anyone in Duke’s frontcourt. Maye has not had a great senior season, but he did whatever he wanted against the Blue Devils once we reached a point where he did not have to worry about being guarded by an absolute freak of nature.
Zion averages roughly two steals and two blocks per game, so it’s not exactly shocking to anyone that’s been paying attention that he is an impact defender, but it’s hard to truly quantify the impact his presence has on a game until he’s not there.
One thing that does need to be noted here is that North Carolina did score seven layups in transition, which were killers and went in the book as points in the paint, but part of that a result of Zion’s absence as well. The Big Fella averaging 22.4 points per game. He’s 68.3 percent from the floor. He can handle the rock, he’ll catch just about anything that his thrown his way and — this is the most important part — he is so good that defenses have to change the way that they play to account for him.
He creates space and driving lanes for his teammates simply by being on the floor, which is to say nothing of his ability to score in the mid-post and off of offensive boards.
And without him, Duke will only have two players on the floor that are any kind of a threat offensively.
2. DUKE’S SUPPORTING CAST IS A COMPLETE DISASTER RIGHT NOW
On Wednesday night, Duke shot 25-for-72 (34.7%) from the floor and 8-for-39 (20.5%) from three, which are dreadful numbers. But it is worth pointing out that Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett both played about as well as you can ask them to play. Combined, they scored 60 points on 21-for-45 shooting (46.7%) and 7-for-23 (30.4%) shooting from three.
That second number is the concerning one, but it’s also a situation where they had no choice but to fire away.
Because at no point on Wednesday night did North Carolina have to guard any of the other three players on the floor for Duke.
The rest of the team finished with 12 points. They shot 4-for-27 from the floor, which includes a 3-for-3 night from Javin DeLaurier. Duke’s four other perimeter players — Tre Jones, Jack White, Alex O’Connell and Jordan Goldwire — were 1-for-23 from the floor. They shot 1-for-16 from three. White has now missed 25 consecutive threes, dating all the way back to January 12th. Defenses have stopped guarding Jones on the perimeter, and the result has been the paint being as muddled as a mojito.
Zion is not going to be the guy that creates space on the wings, but the value he brings to this offense is obvious. For starters, he’ll typically end up as an initiator while Reddish is the guy buried in the corner as a spot-up shooter. He also creates space when he’s in the lane because defenses have to protect against a lob that would be thrown when he is in the dunk spot, and his ability to hold position in the lane can help clear out shot-blockers when the wings drive into the lane.
And if all else fails, Zion might just be the best offensive rebounder in college basketball.
But we know all that.
The problem isn’t simply that Zion isn’t on the floor.
It’s that the defenses trying to stop Duke would be more worried about defending Barack Obama if Duke suited him up than they are defending whoever it is that Coach K is currently running out on the perimeter.
The first three clips below should give you a sense of what Barrett and Reddish are going to be looking at when they try to drive with Zion out of the lineup. Thanks to Coby White making a mistake defensively, in the last clip you get a glimpse of what happens when the “shooter” that Duke puts in the corner actually has gravity:
3. NORTH CAROLINA SURVIVED DESPITE COBY WHITE PLAYING TERRIBLY
Tre Jones was a liability on the offensive end of the floor, but one of the biggest reasons that Duke was in this game until the end was because he ate up Coby White defensively. White finished 3-for-14 from the field with six turnovers, which is not great but at the same time it’s the risk you take playing a point guard that can be as streaky as White has been.
It’s part of the job description, if you will.
What North Carolina needs is for this to be the game that gets Luke Maye going. He entered the season as an all-american and has seen his numbers — from his scoring to his shooting percentages to his assists and rebounds — go down across the board. Part of that is because Coby White and Cam Johnson are shouldering a bigger load of the offense, but a bigger reason is because the Tar Heels don’t have a natural playmaker the way that they did last season with Theo Pinson on the floor with Joel Berry II.
Maye has had to do more on his own, and that’s not necessarily his strength.
Will this be the game that gets him headed in the right direction?