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Can UNC win the 2019 college basketball championship? This former star thinks so.

Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) falls to the court Wednesday on the first possession of the game, blowing out his left shoe and injuring his right knee. Luke Maye (32) led UNC to an 88-72 win over No. 1 Duke in Williamson’s absence.
Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) falls to the court Wednesday on the first possession of the game, blowing out his left shoe and injuring his right knee. Luke Maye (32) led UNC to an 88-72 win over No. 1 Duke in Williamson’s absence. rwillett@newsobserver.com

I was sitting at lunch with former North Carolina star point guard Kenny Smith last Friday, five days before Zion Williamson blew out his Nike shoe and North Carolina blew out Duke on the road.

Smith was in Charlotte for NBA All-Star Weekend, but I wanted to talk to him about the two UNC-Duke games coming up in the next three weeks.

“Do you think you can split with them?” I asked Smith.

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Kenny Smith Turner Sports

Smith scoffed in the same way that Allen Iverson once did when asked about the importance of practice.

“Split?!” Smith thundered. “We don’t go into anything hoping to split. We have all the tools that you need to win a national championship!”

At the time, I internally pooh-poohed this comment. Smith bleeds Carolina blue. The Turner Sports basketball analyst is on TBS and TNT all the time bragging about the Tar Heels. He’s supposed to think that, right?

But on Wednesday, I understood that Smith had a far better point than I first realized. Yes, Williamson only played 36 seconds before injuring his knee.

But even without Zion, Duke still had four McDonald’s All-Americans playing in that game – as well as two likely top-10 NBA draft picks in this summer’s drafts. The Tar Heels had only two McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster and they were ineffective, as freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little scored a combined 11 points and committed nine turnovers.

Yet UNC still eviscerated Duke, 88-72.

And this was at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In front of former president Barack Obama – who said “His shoe broke!” while watching Williamson’s knee injury unfold in real time – and the usual crowd of blue-faced Duke students who were red-faced by the time the night was out, undoubtedly thinking of all those lost weeks spent camping out in Krzyzewskiville.

Roy Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels' win over the Blue Devils

There’s not a harder place to win in the country. If you can beat a No. 1 Duke team at Cameron – even without Zion – you have a chance to beat anybody.

So let’s listen to Smith a little longer here as he defended his “possible national championship” thesis to me.

“Do you have a great coach?” Smith asked. “OK, Roy Williams, you can check that off the list. Do you have a blend of young talent and old? Oh, we got that. Luke Maye, Cam Johnson (who had 26 points Wednesday), Nassir Little, Coby White – check that off.

“Do you have a magnetic player that can do other things players can’t do?”

Basketball magnetism

It was here that I wondered who Smith was about to mention.

Because Duke has the truly magnetic guys, right? Williamson is the biggest name in college basketball and also the presumptive national player of the year, assuming he plays again this season and maybe even if he doesn’t. (A Duke spokesman said Thursday Williamson was diagnosed with a Grade 1 right knee sprain and his status is day-to-day). And R.J. Barrett gets to the paint anytime he wants and scores even more often than Williamson does. And Cam Reddish would be the best player on 98 percent of Division I teams.

“Luke Maye,” Smith continued. “He can get you a 20-20 game.”

Smith would go on to mention Little and White, too, but he said Maye’s name first. And right on cue, here came Maye Wednesday night with an extraordinary 30-point, 15-rebound game in his final game at Duke.

I don’t think the Huntersville product – who famously had agreed to walk on the Tar Heel team as a freshman before a late scholarship became available – has ever played better.

“Luke was sensational,” Williams said afterward.

Now there are all sorts of caveats attached to Wednesday night’s win, and most start with the letter “Z.” Williamson’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for Duke, which had structured a lot of its game plan around the soaring heights of Mount Zion and suddenly had to adjust to his absence.

“Be honest,” Williams said. “When the big fella goes out of the game, it changes a lot of stuff for them. Zion Williamson – I have never seen anything like him. It was a huge blow for them, and having that happen during the course of the game, you don’t have time to prepare for it.”

Star freshman Zion Williamson is injured in opening moments and doesn't return as UNC wins 88-72

“We were knocked back after that injury,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You could see it.”

All true. But still, how does Duke allow 62 points in the paint?

Third matchup in Charlotte?

If Williamson still isn’t playing by March 9, when Duke comes to Chapel Hill in the regular-season finale, Coach K will have a much better game plan figured out to compensate. There’s no doubt Duke could return the favor and win on the road at UNC.

I hope Zion is playing in that one, and I really hope he’s around for the 2018 ACC tournament in Charlotte March 12-16. It would be a shame for the Queen City not to get its only shot at seeing Zion – at least until he visits the Charlotte Hornets during the 2019-20 NBA season as a member of the New York Knicks.

Duke also shot only 8-for-39 from three-point range Wednesday (although UNC was even worse, shooting 2-for-20). Both teams will shoot better from the perimeter in Chapel Hill.

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UNC head coach Roy Williams yells at his players in the second half to continue pressuring Duke. The No. 8 Tar Heels upset No. 1 Duke, 88-72, at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

And if they match up again in Charlotte for a third game in three weeks… well, who knows? No one has ever been better at getting a team ready for the ACC tournament than Coach K.

Let’s end with Kenny Smith, who was winding up to a conclusion over his plate of risotto.

“We’re a national championship team,” he proclaimed. “We’re not worried about splitting!”

That turned out to be true. If the hundreds of thousands of Tar Heels besides Smith were ever worried about salvaging a split of their two games this season against one of the most talented Duke teams in history, they don’t have to fret about that idea anymore.

But Duke does.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”


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