BC-BKC--NCAA-East Region Preview
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — All eyes are on Duke’s Zion Williamson at the NCAA Tournament — much as they’ve been throughout his remarkable freshman season.
Williamson and the top-seeded Blue Devils (29-5) start play in the East Region on Friday against Summit League champs North Dakota State (19-15), the 16th seed. The contest is among four to finish opening-round play in the East.
Eighth-seeded VCU (25-7) faces No. 9 seed UCF and 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall in the second game in South Carolina. In San Jose, California, No. 5 seed Mississippi State (23-10) faces 12th-seeded Liberty (28-6) and No. 4 seed Virginia Tech (24-8) takes on a 13th seed in Saint Louis (23-12)
But nobody draws as much of buzz than Williamson and the young, dynamic Blue Devils.
Fans filled the lower bowl of Colonial Life Arena on Thursday, camera phones out for a glimpse at Williamson’s every magical move. Several times, they erupted in cheers when Williamson gracefully launched his 6-foot-7. 285-pound frame in the air to throw down a powerful dunk.
He’s been analyzed and scrutinized, lauded and applauded with many wondering how a man so large and powerful can be so agile and quick.
“It’s been good for basketball, good for Duke and fun for Zion. It’s a credit to him as a young guy that he’s just been able to deliver,” said former Duke star Grant Hill.
Williamson just smiles at it all, well counseled by his family before he ever got to Duke on handling the attention that was sure to follow him to college hoops.
“I was prepared for it,” Williamson said. “I’m very excited to be here because I watched March Madness as a little kid and to actually be here playing for Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), playing for Duke, I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
The Blue Devils are far from a one-man show, even if it seems that way at times.
Fellow freshmen R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones have forged a brotherhood this season that has carried Duke to No. 1 in the country, Krzyzewski said. “They’ve always involved with something bigger than them,” he said.
Duke is coming off its 21st ACC Tournament title, powered largely by the return of Williamson who had missed six games after his sneaker blowout in the opening minute against North Carolina on Feb. 20 that made highlights from coast-to-coast. Williamson said he always planned to come back, despite outside voices saying he should skip the rest of the season to protect his likely status as the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft.
Krzyzewski said he told Williamson to sit out if he any reservations. Williamson wouldn’t hear it.
“I feel like I would have been a bad person if I didn’t come back,” he said.
North Dakota State advanced with a 78-74 win over North Carolina Central in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday night. Bison coach David Richman said he saw some deer-in-the-headlight moments in that game with a team that had not played in the NCAAs in four years and has no seniors.
“I was thinking about it and they don’t have any seniors, either,” Richman joked.
Richman said his team won’t change its focus simply to slow down Williamson, relying on its balanced scoring and defensive pressure.
“Ready or not, here it comes,” Richman said.
TALL TALE: Eighth seeded VCU (25-7) is charged with slowing down the tallest player in Division I, 7-6 Tacko Fall of No. 9 seed UCF (23-8). Fall, a senior, has averaged 10.9 points and a team-best 7.3 rebounds to help the Knights make it to the NCAAs for the first time in 14 years.
Preparation for Fall is not easy, according to VCU coach Mike Rhoades.
“I wish we could say we got up on a chair with some broomsticks, but you can’t really move very well that way,” he said.
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