Zion sets doubts aside, gets ready for NCAA’s biggest party
The clock is ticking. The rest of college basketball has three weeks to figure out how to stop Duke’s freshman force of nature, Zion Williamson.
Williamson and the Blue Devils got the overall top seed in the tournament, while Gonzaga and two more Atlantic Coast Conference teams — North Carolina and Virginia — also received No. 1 seeds. Three teams in one conference on the top line matches a record, and offers the selection committee’s guess as to who has the best chance to slow down Duke.
The Blue Devils opened as a 9-4 favorite to win it all.
Williamson, the 6-foot-7 man-child averaging 22 points and nine rebounds and a near-certain top pick in the upcoming NBA draft, is putting his future on the line — along with hundreds of millions in potential earnings — all in hopes of adding his own chapter to the history of America’s most dream-indulged hoops extravaganza. He’s doing it only four weeks after wrenching his knee when his Nike sneaker blew out and sent him crashing to the floor. He missed five games. He wouldn’t dare miss this.
“Everybody has their right to their own opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time,” Williamson said in his return last week, when he led Duke to its 21st ACC tournament title.
Speaking of shoes ... the companies that make them are intrinsically, financially and, yes, toxically intertwined with the players who fill out Division I rosters. The tournament will once again be played against the backdrop of a long list of problems — most of them related to money — that plague the NCAA and college hoops.
LSU is the latest to have its name dragged through the mud, yet neither the NCAA nor the school appeared to think twice about placing the Tigers in a starring role the drama, which begins Tuesday with a pair of play-in games, then gets going in full force on Thursday.
The Tigers were given the No. 3 seed in the East, a mere two weeks after details emerged about their coach, on a wiretap , talking to a recruiting middleman about a “strong ass offer” he made to a high schooler. If true, coach Will Wade clearly violated NCAA rules — in fact, The NCAA Rule: Thou Shalt Not Pay Players.
But while Wade has been banished to the sideline for the time being, the Tigers will be at the party.
“That’s an institutional decision,” Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir, the chair of the selection committee, said last week.
(Muir has other issues: Stanford’s sailing coach was among those charged last week in the giant pay-for-admissions scandal involving small sports at a handful of universities.)
And yet, despite the sordid headlines and the requisite amount of pre-tournament nose-holding, the next three weeks are certain to inspire and amaze us.
Will this year’s magic come from 14th-seeded Old Dominion, whose coach, Jeff Jones, buried his face in a towel as the Monarchs were wrapping up their title in the Conference USA tournament Saturday, then revealed he’s battling prostate cancer?
Or from the UC Irvine Anteaters, the 13th seed in the South who are as good as any team in California this season and have as much pedigree: guard Max Hazzard is UCLA legend Walt Hazzard’s grandson, and guard Spencer Rivers is coach Doc Rivers’ son?
Or maybe even from Gonzaga, whose very smallness — enrollment 5,200 — seems to, in some corners, eternally mask the reality that this is a big-time program with one potential lottery pick on the roster (Rui Hachimura), another in the NBA (Zach Collins), a 21-year string of trips to the tournament and, now, its third No. 1 seeding in seven years?
The confetti will fall the evening of Monday, April 8 inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Then, on April 9, the focus shifts from courtside back to the courtroom, the negotiating table and, in some cases, the jail cell.
More investigations, the likes of which exposed LSU’s troubles, along with more corruption trials involving more assistant coaches and other players in the college recruiting game, will come later this spring.
The NBA and its union will try to inch closer to ending the one and done rule (A player must be at least 19 and a year removed from college before entering the NBA) that receives more than its (fair?) share of blame for the NCAA’s troubles.
Less promising are hopes for real reform out of the NCAA’s recently suggested package of fixes, or from the aftermath of a ruling in U.S. District Court that essentially told the association to continue with business as usual when it came to compensating players with pennies compared to the billions they bring in.
But forget all that for now.
One and done is what gave us Zion and his freshman teammates, RJ Barrett and Cameron Reddish, for a single, precious season at Duke.
It gave us Kentucky, a 2 seed in the Midwest, and its freshman-enabling coach, John Calipari.
It also gave us the dozens of programs that don’t, or can’t, consistently attract that kind of talent. Those teams are, in many cases, cheered as underdogs for that very reason.
Their goal this March appears straightforward, though anything but simple: Assuming his shoes hold up, someone’s got to stop Williamson before he exits stage right, never to look back, on his way to the NBA.