What North Carolina’s sweep of Duke really means

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Kenny Williams grinned because the entire night was so much fun — the win, the three charges he took to land Duke’s star player in foul trouble, the senior night send-off — but more because he knew the inquiry was coming, and he truly wanted to deliver a pointed response.

Sure, North Carolina beat Duke decisively on Saturday, less than a month after doing the same thing at Cameron Indoor. And sure, the 79-70 win gave the Tar Heels a share of the ACC regular-season title, pushed them into position to nab a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament and handed the seniors another marquee victory over a rival. But that nagging note of what-if lingers: Duke didn’t have Zion Williamson, so what does it all really mean?

“We play the cards we’re dealt,” Williams said. “Regardless of what people say, there won’t be an asterisk on these two games. There won’t be an asterisk on that banner that says we’re ACC champions.”

In other words, give the Heels a little respect. This team is a real championship contender, with a freshman point guard who looked far more explosive and dynamic Saturday than Duke’s cast of five-star recruits, and a trio of seniors who bid farewell to their home court by offering the kind of veteran stability Duke has so clearly lacked of late.

And yet, here, too, was Mike Krzyzewski. He’s all about that asterisk. He offered the nominal praise for UNC, lauded the strong play of Williams and Coby White, said nothing that would make for bulletin-board material. But the Duke coach also isn’t interested in reliving these past six games, bookended by losses to UNC, as anything more than an exercise in treading water.

“We have a reset button,” he said. “If Zion’s healthy, we’ll have a chance.”

On that point, Krzyzewski was emphatic, too. Williamson will participate in full practice Monday, and Krzyzewski expects him back for action when Duke plays its first ACC tournament game on Thursday. And, if that goes well, Friday could offer a third installment to this year’s rivalry, a chance either to prove an asterisk was warranted or that this stretch in which Duke has dropped 3 of 6 without a healthy Williamson only illuminated all the weaknesses the star freshman had kept hidden.

And to be sure, there are flaws. Duke lacks an outside shooter, an Achilles’ heel for the offense without Williamson’s presence in the paint. RJ Barrett has had to shoulder the load, and even at his best, he has been inconsistent from outside. Even with Cam Reddish stepping up — he was a force at times Saturday — Krzyzewski noted Duke had only two scorers. Even if Williamson is back in the mix, UNC is clearly the more versatile offense.

“We have so many weapons, and it’s so hard to stop us. You have to pick your poison,” Williams said. “We can beat you up inside or we can shoot you out, and that’s a big advantage for us because you don’t know what you’ll get.”

White struggled at Cameron but dominated Saturday. UNC embarrassed Duke in the paint during their first matchup, then drained 12 3-pointers in Saturday’s win.

Barrett got his points in both games — 33 at home, 26 in Chapel Hill — but North Carolina made him work for everything.

“In the handshake line, I think I gained some of RJ’s respect,” Williams said afterward. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to teach me how to play defense like that.'”

Then there’s Duke, which has seemed rudderless on offense without Williamson, a one-note unit that lives and dies by Barrett’s ability to get to the basket. The Blue Devils combined to shoot worse than 35 percent in their two games with UNC. Is Williamson really good enough to put a significant dent in that number?

“When you play a certain way all year, and then you have to adjust to a main player going out, you have to grow and learn,” Barrett said. “We know how good we are when we’re all together.”

And that’s true. Duke has twice beaten Virginia, demolished Kentucky and looked like the odds-on favorite to win it all before Williamson’s sneaker exploded on the opening possession of its first game against Carolina. In 18 ACC games, the true starting five has been healthy for just half. So maybe this was all meaningless.

But then, it’s still meant something for North Carolina. It has put the Tar Heels back into the national spotlight and offered a chance for this unit to take a big step forward, to build some confidence, to showcase a versatile skill set. And even if Williamson does return, Cameron Johnson is betting his guys have a little something left up their sleeves, too.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best game. If everyone’s hot, I think we’ll be extremely tough to stop,” the Tar Heels senior said. “You can’t be satisfied with beating them twice. And whatever it ends up shaking out to be [in a third game], we’ll be ready.”

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