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CHARLOTTE — At the end of a week that served to re-establish Zion Williamson’s health and lock down Duke’s status as the nation’s No. 1 team going into Selection Sunday, only one question remains.
Can the Blue Devils shoot well enough to win six games in the NCAA Tournament?
Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. It certainly didn’t Saturday as Duke won the ACC tournament title, beating Florida State 73-63 despite making just 2-of-14 from the 3-point line and launching enough bricks to resurface the outside of the Spectrum Center.
But as the big tournament begins, Duke still seems beatable, if not vulnerable, because of its only significant weakness — one that could absolutely come into play in a one-and-done setting against a team of similar quality.
“I’m proud of my guys,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who won his 15th ACC tournament title. “They beat three outstanding opponents and tonight was a physical, really hard-fought defensive game and our guys played good defense again.
“They played and competed better and harder than I thought they would be capable of doing right now.”
In some ways, Duke has to compete that hard because for all of its on-paper talent, it can’t rely on pretty basketball much of the time.
Duke, of course, is not a team to be pitied. Though the Blue Devils have five losses this season, only one — by two points to Gonzaga way back on Nov. 21 — came when they had their full complement of players.
No college team since title-winning Kentucky with Anthony Davis in 2012 has had as dominant a two-way player as Williamson, and the Blue Devils’ starting five includes two more likely top-10 draft picks in Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett.
Still, the 3-point shooting is an issue. Duke came into Saturday ranked 333rd nationally in 3-point percentage (30.6) and did nothing to erase that concern this weekend. Even as Williamson set an ACC freshman record for points in a three-game tournament run (81), the Blue Devils made just 14-of-57 overall from long range.
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It’s unlikely any team is going to shut down Williamson because he’s simply too big, too active and too determined to score when he gets the ball in the paint. Most of the time, that’s going to give Duke enough of an offensive foundation to win like it did Saturday, when the Blue Devils made 61 percent of their shots inside the arc.
“I think that’s just who they are,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “They have the ability to get put-backs and tip-ins, and Zion can miss a layup but he’s almost back up tipping it in quicker than anyone can realize the shot has been missed. They’re a really, really hard matchup.”
But there is also danger in those stretches when Barrett and Reddish settle and miss from the perimeter, as they have been prone to do this season. In fact, after Florida State cut Duke’s lead from 14 down to nine with 9:25 remaining, Barrett missed two jumpers — neither of which were close to going in — allowing the Seminoles to stave off the door getting slammed in their face.
Duke was never in particular danger of losing the lead Saturday — it never got closer than 63-58 — but the Blue Devils missed plenty of opportunities down the stretch and had to rely mostly on their defense.
In some ways, that suggests Duke’s ceiling is higher than what it has shown to this point, which is understandable given that Williamson missed six games before the ACC tournament and various other pieces were in and out of the lineup throughout the season. In other ways, it indicates that every night against a quality opponent will be a gut-check.
“It’s tough to determine what our potential is, so I try not to do that,” Krzyzewski said. “I just want to have us play as good as we possibly can play right now. Half the conference season we played without our full complement of players, so to play these three games was so important.”
What Duke faced Saturday is going to be the blueprint, of course, for every opponent from here on out. In a sense, it has been all season: Make Duke shoot as many threes as you can and hope for the best.
When Duke hits them, the Blue Devils are practically unstoppable. When it doesn’t, well, Kentucky, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Michigan State and the rest would love the opportunity to find out what happens.