CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — After No. 2 Duke beat No. 3 Virginia by double digits on Saturday night — a game LeBron James and Rajon Rondo just had to see in person — the Blue Devils returned to the visitor’s locker room and acted like a bunch of kids.
Alex O’Connell held up a shoe as if it were a microphone and asked Tre Jones to comment about his performance.
Zion Williamson claimed he didn’t notice James, which prompted a teammate to yell, “That’s your big brother!”
“Stop it, Bro,” Williamson said.
They were screaming in the shower. They were interrupting each other. They were laughing about whatever 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds laugh about when they’re around one another.
It belied the moment.
The presence of James and Rondo, coupled with a significant victory over a Virginia squad with Final Four aspirations, were all stitched together into the season’s most pivotal realization: Duke has now reached the point where anything short of a national title will seem like an incomplete season for this talented group.
If these players understand they’ve reached that point, they do not conduct themselves like a team that notices — or cares.
“What pressure?” RJ Barrett said after scoring 26 points and finishing with a 6-for-10 clip from the 3-point line. “We’re just going in. We’re young kids and we’re just playing hard every night.”
The Blue Devils have wins over Kentucky, Texas Tech, Florida State, Auburn and Virginia (twice). Gonzaga is the only team that’s defeated Duke at full strength.
But Saturday’s win, on the road, against one of America’s best, comprised the program’s most impressive effort to date. The Blue Devils made 62 percent of their 3-pointers, despite entering the game with one of the nation’s worst marks (30.8 percent) from beyond the arc. Even when Virginia made runs – at one point they cut Duke’s lead to four – the Blue Devils always seemed ready to get serious again and put more space between them and the Cavaliers (and perhaps the rest of America).
“As good as the game in Durham was, this one was better,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played outstanding basketball tonight. It’s tough to single out a kid. We were fortunate we won. That’s the best we shot from the 3-point line, and obviously that’s a huge difference, and the fast breaks.
“They’re outstanding and we were really good too. And it was that game. We feel very thankful that we won. I’m proud of my guys, but we beat a heck of a team and they’re a great program. We’re obviously very pleased.”
The Blue Devils now join a lengthy list of programs that seemed insurmountable at this point in the season. Some fell short of expectations.
That’s why you’ll likely hear the refrain “anything can happen in March” as Duke advances toward the NCAA tournament. That phrase is a reminder that teams are often set up for failure at this level. Last year, a soaring Virginia team became the first top seed to lose to a 16-seed in the opening round. This sport does not offer any guarantees in a single-elimination tournament.
But Duke has displayed its potential to turn “anything can happen” into a positive message come March.
Anything can happen? True. Like hitting more than 60 percent of its 3-pointers on the road against a top-five team, which is what happened on Saturday. Or fighting through injuries – Duke beat Virginia in the first game without Tre Jones and defeated Florida State with Williamson sidelined most of the game with an eye injury.
For Duke, “anything can happen” means the Blue Devils seem capable of overcoming any scenario.
This might be Duke’s year. Sure, its season could end without a national title. The list of teams that have fallen short is a lengthy one. That won’t change, however, the expectations attached to these Blue Devils.
They do not feel that heat, though. And that will help them as they navigate the final months of the season.
“Obviously, it’s not a lot I need to tell them,” junior Marques Bolden said about his younger teammates. “They were groomed for this moment. They’ve handled the season and all the things that have come to us very well, so for them to keep doing what they’re doing at this level is special for them.”
By now, you’ve probably seen The Block.
Late in Saturday’s win, Williamson broad-jumped across the John Paul Jones Arena court and sent De’Andre Hunter’s 3-point attempt to Richmond.
“Coach said no 3s,” Williamson explained. “And I was trying to get out there and make him drive, but he shot it so I blocked it.”
You probably did not see, however, the reaction from the folks in the front row who caught Williamson as he hit the brakes. They seemed stunned, frustrated and impressed all at once.
They couldn’t figure it out. How’d he do it? How’d they do it?
That’s the question.
Williamson and Co. might lose again. They might lose in March. They might not reach Minneapolis.
But everyone watching, LeBron included, will expect this special season to end with a crown.
At this point, any alternative would make as much sense as the physics of Williamson’s block.
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