By John Fanta
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Virginia Tech Hokies have a chip on their shoulder. Why? They realize what people think about their first meeting with Duke on Feb. 26 in, a 77-72 Hokies home win.
Zion Williamson did not play that night in Blacksburg, missing the second of five straight games with a mild knee sprain.
“We know it’s going to be a fight,” said Virginia Tech star Kerry Blackshear of Friday’s regional semifinal. “We know that they feel we got them without their guy (Williamson).”
Williamson certainly isn’t waiting to pull any punches. “I think I bring a lot to the table (to the rematch) obviously,” said the top NBA Draft prospect. “I’m going to enjoy playing the rematch because it was very unfortunate to see my brothers lose, even though they battled really hard. I’m just glad to be able to go to war with them.”
There’s no question there’s a Williamson factor, but Virginia Tech was also without guard Justin Robinson due to a foot injury in the Feb. 26 contest. The senior is back, and coming off a double-digit scoring output in the Round of 32 win over Liberty.
“We also feel like we got them (Duke) without one of our guys,” Blackshear added.
With Robinson on the floor, and Tre Jones looking to get Duke back into a rhythm in the backcourt on Friday, that’s an intriguing layer to the ACC rematch between the Hokies and Blue Devils. But, it doesn’t trump the Zion Factor.
“I think he’s the best player in the country, and Coach (Krzyzewski) is the best coach ever in college basketball,” said Buzz Williams, who has led Virginia Tech to just its second Sweet 16 appearance in program history and first since 1967.
The Hokies’ focus remains on themselves, and what they did to outscore Duke in the paint, 26-24, while holding the Blue Devils to 7-of-21 from three-point land.
“They added Zion, and you add in Justin Robinson, which are two great players,” said Virginia Tech senior guard Ahmed Hill. “I think our game plan stays the same. The high-level talent out there stays the same. And the intensity stays the same.”
While Hill says that, and it’s the right mentality to take, Williamson enters Friday night having averaged 28 points per game in his last eight contests.
On top of that, after Duke’s experienced the five games without Williamson which featured two losses, as well as Sunday’s Round of 32 nail-biter over UCF, the Blue Devils are prepared for most anything.
“They (UCF) gave us a knockout blow with all those shots,” said Krzyzewski. “And for the most part, forget about X’s and O’s, calls or whatever, you’re going to be knocked out. And our guys weren’t. That says a lot for these kids. This has been a really good group. And winning any game but that game in the NCAA obviously is huge.”
The win was willed by Williamson, whose and-1 got Duke to the line, and RJ Barrett, who delivered what turned out to be the game-winning putback off the free throw miss. Sure, it involved catching a break on a missed UCF alley-oop, but the poise of the Blue Devils in that win could be the biggest piece of a national championship puzzle.
For Duke, they walk on the floor for the rest of this tournament with something that is no debate – the Blue Devils have the best two players on the hardwood in every game. Particularly on Friday night, though, it’s #1 who Virginia Tech gets its first taste of, which is certainly bold in all forms.
“This kid is just one of a kind,” said Krzyzewski of Williamson. “He’s certainly a special basketball player. But as a youngster, he has a maturity – it’s uncommon. It really is uncommon. And how humble he is and how fresh, it’s exciting. It’s exquisite, just the best.”
As if that wasn’t enough from a legend of the game, Krzyzewski ended his thoughts on Zion with this: “It’s been an honor for me to be with him on this journey.”
College Hoops Digest will have extensive coverage of the East Regional at Capital One Arena, with Josh Adams and John Fanta heading down to DC for ncaahoopsdigest.com. Follow on twitter @NCAAHoopsDigest and @John_Fanta.