2019 ACC Tournament: Duke reinventing itself on the fly as it looks to close out the season with a title

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Zion Williamson’s return to action has been the biggest headline here at the ACC Tournament so far, but as the tension from Friday night’s 74-73 thriller against North Carolina begins to ease the lingering impression for Duke is how many other players were needed to step up in order to finish on top. 

Jordan Goldwire and Antonio Vrankovic brought a defensive pressure and intensity that helped Duke take control of a game that started with North Carolina pushing the pace and playing at a Tar Heel-friendly tempo. The Blue Devils trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half of the semifinals, and Goldwire, in particular, did a great job of making life tough for Cameron Johnson and the rest of UNC’s outside shooters. 

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski repeatedly mentioned Goldwire, in particular, as a huge key to the victory. Goldwire gives Duke a top-notch defensive option on the perimeter to pair with Tre Jones, which in turn takes some pressure off Williamson and RJ Barrett and allows them to conserve energy for what has been, all year, a heavy work load in terms of both minutes and offensive production. 

“Our bench really helped us,” Krzyzewski said. “J-Gold especially, and Antonio, who, I’m sure he didn’t think he was going to play tonight, but he did and he played very well. And both those kids gave energy and maybe that’s one of the reasons RJ and Zion weren’t as tired, because they were instead of giving energy to a teammate, they were getting energy from a teammate.”

After the intense battle vs. the Tar Heels, the No. 3 seed Blue Devils (28-5) will need another team effort when they face No. 4 seed Florida State (27-6) for the ACC Tournament Championship at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. 

Williamson’s late-season absence forced Krzyzewski to tinker with his lineups a little bit, and now the loss of Marques Bolden has him going to lineups he hasn’t used the entire season. 

“I do have confidence in the guys and just ask them that, when their number’s called to, you know, just be yourself and play your butt off,” Krzyzewski said.

Most of the other national championship contenders are very set in their identity. Other teams like Gonzaga, Michigan State, Michigan and Kentucky have gone through attrition and dealt with injuries, but the basic fabric of who those teams are and what they want to do has not changed much. 

Zion and R.J. Barrett are the constants, but the other pieces — both in terms of actual lineups and production — have continued to rotate throughout the season. For some teams that lack of identity would be a reason to bet against success in the pressure cooker that is the NCAA Tournament, but for Duke the continued ability to adapt and adjust on the fly might make more dangerous than anyone else in the country. 

Duke, No. 5 in the AP Top 25 Poll, has played a schedule against seven teams that are in the mix for No. 1 seeds with only one loss coming in a game where it was at full strength: at Gonzaga on a neutral floor. Because the Blue Devils were able to topple the Tar Heels with Zion in the lineup they’re going to be in the mix for the No. 1 overall seed (where they are in Jerry Palm’s latest Bracketology after beating UNC) and likely enter the 2019 NCAA Tournament as the betting favorite to win the national championship. 

There’s rarely a shortage of fans ready to pick Duke in their bracket, and the Zion effect is likely to have a major impact on that popularity as well, but if Duke is cutting down the nets in Minneapolis it’s going to be thanks to players like Goldwire. This Duke team already had a lot of tread on its tires and it needs as much energy as it can get in these tournament settings. The fact that Goldwire and others are not only ready to answer the call but delivering game-changing performances under immense pressure is a great sign for what might be to come in these final games of the Zion Era at Duke.  

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