Duke's Zion Williamson sits on the floor following a injury during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.
Photo: AP Photo/Gerry Broome
Photo: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

The NCAA tournament needs Zion Williamson

The intent was to offer a bit of a look ahead to the NCAA tournament, the bracket of which will be set three weeks from Sunday. A wardrobe malfunction narrowed the focus. The college basketball season has been mostly about Zion Williamson, the best player on the best team. After a blown shoe led to a tweaked knee, we must now accept that an entire sport will turn on whatever one man does – or doesn’t do, about which more in a moment.

As LeBron-centric as the NBA has been, the pro game also has the Warriors and the Beard and the Brow. Beyond Zion, what else does college hoops have? Big-name coaches, yes, but there’s a reason we know Coach K and Cal and Ol’ Roy in a way we haven’t known a collegiate player since … who? Laettner? Sampson? Ewing? Great college players don’t stay in college any longer than the NBA requires, which is one year, which is why even the best of the best barely register.

(The past five Associated Press players of the year: Jalen Brunson, Frank Mason, Denzel Valentine, Frank Kaminsky, Doug McDermott. I say no more.)

Zion is different. He’s the best player on the best team, and he’s also a player who rewards repeat viewing. As hyped-to-the-heavens as he was, he managed to become that rarity – the athlete who trumps his own hype. He can dunk it any way you want it dunked, but he’s way more than that. In sum, he’s not Hamidou Diallo, who just won the NBA’s silly dunk contest, but whose undergrad highlight at Kentucky came when somebody measured his vertical leap.

Zion figures to make this a memorable March simply because it will be his only dip into the Madness. He’ll either lead Duke to a national championship or somebody will topple Duke in the biggest tournament shocker since … well, Maryland-Baltimore County over Virginia. That last sentence essentially was going to constitute our bracket breakdown, and it should hold up – provided Williamson is both able and willing.

The guess here is that he will be. A mild knee sprain is, to borrow from Jeff Bezos, a complexifier but not a disqualifier. I can’t imagine he’ll need any sort of surgery, anything more than some R&R. Toward that end, he could skip the regular season’s final fortnight and the ACC tournament. (Duke’s NCAA qualification isn’t in doubt, duh.) He could even skip the first game of the Big Dance, which would mean his services wouldn’t be required until March 22/23. 

Another guess: Williamson will be playing before then. That’s what – another duh – players do. This is the only time he and these teammates will have together. (R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish could be the second and third players drafted come June.) At no time this season has it seemed that the great Zion was putting in time waiting for his payday, and full credit to him.

The reality, alas, is that Williamson and his exalted ilk ARE merely waiting to turn pro, which is the chief reason college basketball has receded to niche status. We say again: College hoops is a sport dependent on a bracket. We’ll watch the NCAA tournament no matter who plays, but an NCAA with Zion would be must-see fare.

Back in 2014, I was in the Pelicans’ locker room after they’d beaten the Hawks. Earlier that day, Duke had been upset by Mercer in Round 1 of the Dance. Anthony Davis and Darius Miller, partners in Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA title, were unrelenting in their ribbing of Austin Rivers, who’d spent one season as a Blue Devil. Somehow Rivers neglected to mention that, one year earlier, Kentucky had lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. He did, however, point to Duke’s No. 1 recruiting class, which one year later would yield a championship.

For all the NBA’s fame and fortune, even one dip into the NCAA tournament stands as a Life Experience. (LeBron never played in it. Neither did Kobe.) As Lon Kruger, who has taken five different colleges to the Dance and two to the Final Four, said when he was coaching the Atlanta Hawks: “The NBA is great, but it doesn’t have anything like those three weeks.”

As a person, Williamson will absolutely want to partake of those three weeks. Thing is, he’s not just a person. He’s also a commodity. All he has to do to become a mega-millionaire is stay healthy until June. College players don’t get paid, an ongoing truth that led DeMarcus Cousins, himself a one-and-done, to counsel Zion by using a barnyard epithet to describe college basketball.

The chances of Williamson getting hurt again in the exact same way are infinitesimal – if Zion blows another shoe, Nike will shutter its doors the next morning – but who among us can know what tomorrow might bring? In December 1997, the peerless Jerry Rice made a triumphant return from September knee surgery against Denver on a Monday night, only to shatter that kneecap while scoring a touchdown.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but college basketball needs Zion Williamson this March. If he plays, his team should win. If he doesn’t, a sport will lose.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.