Zion Williamson, the star who wears a No. 1 jersey and size-15 shoes, will enter the NCAA Tournament carrying the honor of being college basketball’s No. 1 player on the No. 1 team. At some point or another, all eyes will be on him as he tries to wind up his brief career at Duke as a won-and-done.
The Big Dance begins this week with the Blue Devils as the top overall seed, leading three Atlantic Coast Conference teams who are No. 1 seeds in their regionals. Most prominently, it begins with Williamson on the court, regardless of the speculation that he might just sit it out rather than risk his future lavish NBA contract on another injury.
Williamson is confident in his footwear now after one of his Nikes blew out during his team’s first game against North Carolina and caused him to hurt his knee. The freshman, generally assumed to be among the one-and-done types who leave for the pros as soon as they are eligible to do so, said after Duke beat Florida State on Saturday to win the ACC Tournament that there was no way he was going to miss March Madness.
“Those six games I sat out, when you see your brothers going to war battling and there’s nothing you can do but sit on the sideline and cheer, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not that type of person,” he said. “I want to be out there with them, and I made a commitment to them, and I would be a bad person if I went back on my commitment.”
He is expected to be the first pick in the NBA Draft, and his games for Duke have become celebrity-attracting occasions. Among the fans at the game in which he was injured was former President Barack Obama.
Without Williamson, Duke lost twice to North Carolina in the regular season, which the NCAA selection committee obviously did not hold against the Blue Devils. Behind Williamson’s 31 points, they beat the Tar Heels in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. Williamson scored 81 points in three tournament games.
The ACC in general made a huge impression, with North Carolina and Virginia also receiving top seeds. Gonzaga received the other No. 1 designation despite losing to St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament final.
Defending national champion Villanova was given a No. 6 seed, one spot lower than Marquette, even though Villanova won the Big East regular season and conference tournament titles. Both will open the tournament in Hartford, with Villanova facing Saint Mary’s and Marquette playing Murray State. The latter team features Ja Morant, the high-scoring guard who ranked perhaps second to Williamson in star power this season.
Selection Sunday was not filled with major controversy this year. There was mild surprise that Belmont made the field after various “bracketologists” predicted it would be left out. The day was stressful for teams on the proverbial bubble, notably St. John’s, which did get in — barely. Committee chairman Bernard Muir said the Red Storm were the last team into the field of 68. They will play coach Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State team in Dayton on Wednesday for the right to get into the main bracket.
“This is my first time watching it live and I didn’t know how it worked,” Red Storm point guard Shamorie Ponds said after the viewing party on campus. “I kept seeing teams come up besides ours. But I definitely felt relieved when ours came up.”
Coach Chris Mullin said: “This whole update to the update to the update: You’re in, you’re out, you’re dead . . . these kids are used to that. Sitting in the back and seeing that pure, authentic joy was pretty cool.”
Duke is shooting for a much more elaborate celebration in three weeks. “When you’re a little kid, watching Duke on TV cut down nets, championship nets, you say you want to be a part of it,” Williamson said. “But when you actually grow up and get to be a part of it, I mean, that’s why we come to Duke, to win championships and try to get banners.”