College Sports

Zion Mania hasn’t peaked yet, but it might come close at NCAAs in Columbia

Donnell Brown and Eric Davis arrived at Colonial Life Arena at 10 a.m. Thursday. Zion Williamson didn’t take the court for another five hours, and Brown, 12, and Davis, 15, were hanging over the rail with their hands extended when he did.

“When he dapped me up, he like moved my arm,” said Davis, of Columbia. “I was like, ‘Woah, you’re strong.’ ”

Williamson has had a similar seismic effect on college basketball this season. On Friday, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Spartanburg native will play his first game in his home state since choosing to play at Duke rather than one of the in-state schools or dozens of other suitors he had.

“I saw it on the news — they said he was coming,” Davis said.

“And it was free,” Brown finished.

The Blue Devils are the No. 1 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament. They are one of eight teams in Columbia for first- and second-round March Madness games. All eight held open practices Thursday at Colonial Life Arena, and a crowd of 5,000 was on hand when Williamson and the Blue Devils took the court at 3:25 p.m.

When Virginia Commonwealth took the floor in the next practice slot, the crowd had dwindled to 20 percent of that number. Zion, an 18-year-old freshman forward who starred at Spartanburg Day School, was the show everyone came to see as he will be again Friday. The Blue Devils, the betting favorite to win the tournament, take on No. 16 seed North Dakota State at 7:10 p.m. Friday. CBS’ lead announcing crew of Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery is on hand to call all the action.

“He reminds me of an Oscar (Robertson) in my era,” Raftery said. “I think Lebron (James) would be like him but didn’t go to college. That kind of guy doesn’t come along. Michael (Jordan) wasn’t Michael until later.”

Zion has been Zion since he played his first collegiate game just five months ago. He is averaging 22.1 points and 8.9 rebounds. He was named the ACC Player of the Year and already has been named the national player of the year by Sporting News.

“The size and speed and handle and touch. He exudes enjoying the game. It seems like this kid has everything,” Raftery said. “He just possesses that thing that I guess we call greatness.”

Williamson’s production comes wrapped in a package of rare explosiveness that has produced a career’s worth of highlights in what will be his one season of college basketball.

“He’s a defensive lineman that jumps like Vince Carter,” said Grant Hill, an All-American at Duke who is in Columbia with the CBS broadcast crew. “We have never seen a guy who jumps that high who is that big but also has that kind of motor. He plays hard, he gets steals. He’s just must-see. You know that if you blink your eye or turn your head you might miss something amazing.”

Nobody looked away while Duke was the court Thursday. When Williamson opted for a layup on his first breakaway chance, the crowd groaned in unison. The third time he did it, the crowd booed. He later threw down three dunks that delighted the crowd.

“I didn’t think I would ever like have a chance, once I committed to Duke, to play in the state of South Carolina in a college basketball game, so that’s obviously a blessing. I’m very excited about that,” Williamson said. However, “I can’t like put my personal excitement ahead of my teammates because, at the end of the day, I’m on a team, and I want to win with my teammates, and we have to focus on just winning.”

The Blue Devils watched the tournament selection show together at the University Club in Durham. When Duke’s name popped up in the Columbia bracket, Williamson’s teammates all turned to him in unison, Duke senior Brennan Besser said.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, let’s get it done boys,’ ” Besser said.

Besser laughed Thursday as Williamson entered the Blue Devils locker room and was immediately surrounded by dozens of media members, several tripping over themselves trying to get closer to the show.

“This is the Zion Effect,” Besser said. “The circus has followed us all year.”

And Williamson has handled it beautifully, Besser said.

“I’ve seen great players come through,” Besser said. “What I haven’t seen to this extent is that Zion actually leverages the attention to make a more equitable space for everyone in the locker room. He’ll make sure to shout out guys who might not be receiving immediate media attention, but he knows are working hard in the gym. It’s great. He’s the best about it. As good a basketball player as he is, he’s maybe a better person.”

CBS has a brought in an extra camera to record only Williamson every moment he’s on the court this weekend. Five hundred and seventy-five media members have been credentialed for the games in Columbia. At least three are from New York newspapers. Williamson is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, and the New York Knicks are in position to land that pick.

“The thing that has been remarkable is that with all that he seems like he has kept his sanity,” Hill said. “He’s a good kid, works hard, good teammate. It’s almost like he’s oblivious to it. He’s insulated himself with his family and his team. It’s refreshing. He’s not self-absorbed as a result of all the madness.”

NCAA Tournament Columbia regional game schedule

The NCAA Tournament in Columbia schedule for Friday’s games (with Sunday’s second round game times to be announced).

South Region

(8) Ole Miss vs. (9) Oklahoma, 12:40 p.m. Friday (truTV)

(1) Virginia vs. (16) Gardner-Webb, approximately 3 p.m. Friday (truTV)

East Region

(1) Duke vs. (16) North Dakota State, 7:10 p.m. Friday (CBS)

(8) VCU vs. (9) UCF, approximately 9:40 p.m. Friday (CBS)

Follow more of our reporting on Columbia is a host city for the first two rounds of March Madness 2019. This will be a place for relevant stories from The State covering host city game info to be tagged and curated.

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Josh Kendall has covered SEC football for almost 20 years. He has covered the Gamecocks since the 2010 season. Have a question? Shoot him an email or find him on Twitter, and he’ll be happy to respond.