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Duke’s Williamson Transcends the Madness

Freshman Zion Williamson makes this year’s NCAA Tournament, always fascinating on its own merits, even more of a can’t-miss event.

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The NCAA Tournament that opened in earnest Thursday did so without much local flavor.

Fortunately, this is a dance in which you need not jump-stop with the one that brung ya.

It’s the first time since 2000 –– thanks to WTAE’s Guy Junker for the research –– that the bracket doesn’t include Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia or Robert Morris.

Duquesne hasn’t made it that far since 1977.

But part of the annual allure of March Madness is there’s always something to root for or root against in a three-week saga that often changes dramatically by the possession.

Living and dying with every free throw sunk or shot blocked by the old alma mater is an experience I wouldn’t trade, even when it almost invariably rips my heart out.

But I’ve also always gotten a kick out of the casual fans that temporarily attach themselves to basketball by breaking out the old school sweatshirt or hat.

As well as those who have no alumni ties whatsoever but still get caught up in an upset, a Cinderella run or even a relatively obscure school name, mascot or color scheme. Gonzaga has been the beneficiary of this type of support for years now even though it’s no longer needed (the Bulldogs are a No. 1 seed). The UC Irvine Anteaters and Peter the Anteater are among those who likewise qualify this season (they have a tough matchup with Kansas State looming on Friday afternoon but we can dream).

There’s something for everyone, it seems.

Until there isn’t.

And then there’s something else.

It happens every March and it’s better than Christmas.

Still, this year is different.

This year, the NCAA Tournament has Zion Williamson.

He isn’t just the latest Duke freshman sensation, he’s a generational player.

Dunks, steals, blocks, assists, threes, whatever’s needed.

I could bore you with statistics or superlatives; instead consider this:

Williamson is so good he makes you shake your head in admiration even when he’s ripping your school to threads.

I saw that firsthand last weekend in Waltham, Mass.

I was in town to call a Robert Morris hockey playoff series against Bentley. The night before provided an opportunity to take in the Duke-Syracuse ACC basketball quarterfinal with RMU broadcasting colleague Tim Benz.

Benz bleeds Syracuse orange the way I do Michigan State green.

Williamson went 13-for-13 from the field, grabbed 14 rebounds (seven offensive, seven defensive), and added two assists, five steals and a block on the way to a game-high 29 points in 36 minutes.

Syracuse went away and Benz should have been outraged.

Instead, he was in awe.

“I was flattered he did it to my school,” was the postgame assessment between beverages.

That’s the level to which Williamson transcends.

And that’s what makes this year’s NCAA Tournament, always fascinating on its own merits, even more of a can’t-miss event.

More than it’s ever been, perhaps, since Bird vs. Magic.

It’s that this time because of Zion.

This is his tournament, and Duke’s (even if you have the good taste to hate Duke).

It will be that, until it isn’t.

And in the unlikely event it gets to that, it’ll be even more compelling.

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