If Zion Williamson’s injury has had any benefit for Duke, it is surely the emergence of RJ.. Barrett. The Canadian freshman has stepped up in Zion’s absence, so much so that that he’s now being talked about as a challenger to Zion for ACC player of the year. Many pundits are even predicting R.J. will go number two in this year’s NBA draft, behind, you guessed it, Zion.
Barrett will need to keep putting up big numbers if Duke are to stay in contention for the NCAA top seed. The Blue Devils are still top in NCAA title betting, as seen at online bookies such as Pinnacle Sports. But they have slipped to third in the AP rankings with March Madness just two weeks away.
Barrett’s Big Stretch for Duke
The Blue Devils (25-4), lost two of their first three games in Williamson’s absence, despite Barrett averaging 28 points per game in that stretch. Barrett had his best all-round performance and Duke its best team performance in their fourth game without Zion, an 87-57 win over Miami on Saturday. RJ led his team in the three major statistical categories for the first time in his college career, scoring 19 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and dishing out seven assists.
For all the much-deserved hype around Zion, RJ’s recent form has seen him draw level on the stats sheet. Barrett leads the ACC in scoring with 23.3 points per game, ahead of second-placed Williamson on 21.6 ppg. RJ’s 7.4 rebounds per game have him just behind Zion’s 8.8. He has 4.2 assists per game, almost doubling Zion’s 2.2.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made some strategic changes on Saturday that saw Barrett share the scoring load with third wheel Cam Reddish. Coach K is undoubtedly planning how to get the most out of all three players when Zion does make it back on the court.
Zion Expected Back for March Madness
The basketball world held its collective breath when Zion Williamson went down with a knee injury in the opening minutes of Duke’s nationally televised loss to arch-rivals North Carolina February 20. After the win over Miami Saturday, Coach K hinted his star would miss the final two games of the regular season but be back in time for March Madness.
In Coach K’s words, Zion “hasn’t done anything with contact but he’s moving really well. Contact makes you do things that you don’t think about. You have to pass that phase. We’re not in any hurry.”
Coach K may not sound worried, but Duke probably needs to win its final two games to secure a top seed going into March Madness. On Tuesday, it plays struggling Wake Forest, a match it should win easily. On Saturday, it will wrap up the regular season with a rematch against North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels, 24-5 and #5 in the AP rankings at time of writing, will be setting their sites on a win over Duke and a top-four seeding.
Barrett May Need to Step Back Against Tar Heels
It may sound strange, but Duke may have better odds of beating UNC if RJ.. steps back a bit. Barrett scored 33 in the loss to the Tar Heels on Feb 20, taking control as he and his teammates struggled to adjust to the shock of losing Zion in the opening minutes. But he and his team were better off with his performance against Miami – when he scored only 19 points and allowed the likes of Cam Reddish to step up as well.
Coach K will be looking for R.J. to again share the scoring load with Reddish in the rematch against the Tar Heels. This will give Duke a better chance of beating their arch-rivals and setting themselves up for a shot at the NCAA title.
More importantly, Barrett needs to get used to sharing the workload before Zion comes back into the line-up. If – and it’s a big if – Zion Williamson comes into March Madness fully fit, then the prospect of him and R.J. forming a one-two combo will cause the rest of Duke’s NCAA title rivals to tremble.
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