Zion Williamson did not play for No. 1 Duke on Saturday night in Syracuse.
He’s still battling the knee injury that he suffered on Wednesday when his shoe blew up, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a team missing their best player is not going to be as good as they would be with him.
That goes for all teams, not just the ones that happen to be missing the National Player of the Year.
But in Zion’s absence, R.J. Barrett decided that this was the right time to remind everyone that Zion is not the only all-american and soon-to-be top three pick on the Duke roster.
Playing as close to his native Toronto as he will as year long, Barrett went for 30 points, seven assists and five boards, shooting 14-for-20 from the floor and 2-for-5 from three as the Blue Devils went into the Carrier Dome and avenged a loss they suffered in Cameron Indoor Stadium a month ago, 75-65.
“It was really about our whole team stepping up, and we really did that today,” Barrett said.
Maybe we shouldn’t forget that Duke might just have the second best player in the country, too.
But as good as Barrett was on Saturday night, the hero of the night for Duke was probably sophomore wing Alex O’Connell. Starting in Zion’s absence, O’Connell scored 17 of his career-high 20 points in the second half. More importantly, O’Connell hit five threes, including four in the second half, as he played a major role in Duke’s ability to bust that Syracuse 2-3 zone.
Here are the important numbers that you need to know: Duke ranks outside the top 320 nationally in three-point shooting. The last time that Duke played Syracuse, when they lost in Durham, Duke shot 9-for-43 from three. In the loss to North Carolina, players not named Cam Reddish or R.J. Barrett shot 1-for-16 from three. Mike Krzyzewski burned Joey Baker’s redshirt on Saturday because he desperately needed shooting on the floor and Jack White has missed 25 straight threes, every three he’s taken since Jan. 12th.
On Saturday, Tre Jones was 1-for-7 from three and missed six in a row after hitting his first. Reddish finished with just five points, shooting 2-for-11 from the floor and 1-for-8 from three. With Zion healthy, a lack of perimeter shooting is likely going to be what does Duke in if they don’t win a national title in April. Without him, Duke has absolutely no chance to do anything of note if they can’t find a way to pull defenses out of the paint.
O’Connell was the guy that did that on Saturday night.
And while his playing time in this game had a lot to do with the matchup — against a zone — and the situation — no Zion left room in the starting five for him — if he can find a way to be anywhere near this kind of a threat moving forward, it changes the calculus for Duke.
I’ve said all along that the best lineup that Duke can put on the floor is when Zion plays the five.
And AOC might just be the key that unlocks Duke’s Death Lineup.