Everyone’s chasing Duke

Williamson-led Blue Devils receive No. 1 overall seed for NCAA Tournament

The Associated Press

The clock is ticking. The rest of college basketball has three weeks to figure out how to stop Duke’s freshman force of nature, Zion Williamson.

Williamson and the Blue Devils got the overall top seed in the tournament Sunday, while Gonzaga and two more Atlantic Coast Conference teams — North Carolina and Virginia — also received No. 1 seeds. Three teams in one conference on the top line matches a record, and offers the selection committee’s guess as to who has the best chance to slow down Duke.

The Blue Devils opened as a 9-4 favorite to win it all.

Williamson, the 6-foot-7 man-child averaging 22 points and nine rebounds and a near-certain top pick in the upcoming NBA draft, is putting his future on the line — along with hundreds of millions in potential earnings — all in hopes of adding his own chapter to the history of America’s most dream-indulged hoops extravaganza. He’s doing it only four weeks after wrenching his knee when his Nike sneaker blew out and sent him crashing to the floor. He missed five games. He wouldn’t dare miss this.

“Everybody has their right to their own opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time,” Williamson said in his return last week, when he led Duke to its 21st ACC tournament title.

Speaking of shoes … the companies that make them are intrinsically, financially and, yes, toxically intertwined with the players who fill out Division I rosters. The tournament will once again be played against the backdrop of a long list of problems — most of them related to money — that plague the NCAA and college hoops.

LSU is the latest to have its name dragged through the mud, yet neither the NCAA nor the school appeared to think twice about placing the Tigers in a starring role in the drama, which begins Tuesday with a pair of play-in games, then gets going in full force on Thursday.

The Tigers were given the No. 3 seed in the East, a mere two weeks after details emerged about their coach, on a wiretap, talking to a recruiting middleman about a “strong ass offer” he made to a high schooler. If true, coach Will Wade clearly violated NCAA rules — in fact, The NCAA Rule: Thou Shalt Not Pay Players.

But while Wade has been banished to the sideline for the time being, the Tigers will be at the party.

“That’s an institutional decision,” Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir, the chair of the selection committee, said last week.

(Muir has other issues: Stanford’s sailing coach was among those charged last week in the giant pay-for-admissions scandal involving small sports at a handful of universities.)

And yet, despite the sordid headlines and the requisite amount of pre-tournament nose-holding, the next three weeks are certain to inspire and amaze us.

Will this year’s magic come from 14th-seeded Old Dominion, whose coach, Jeff Jones, buried his face in a towel as the Monarchs were wrapping up their title in the Conference USA tournament Saturday, then revealed he’s battling prostate cancer?

Or from the Big West champion UC Irvine Anteaters? The 13th seed in the South are as good as any team in California this season and have as much pedigree: guard Max Hazzard is UCLA legend Walt Hazzard’s grandson, and guard Spencer Rivers is Clippers coach Doc Rivers’ son.

Or maybe even from Gonzaga, whose very smallness — enrollment 5,200 — seems to, in some corners, eternally mask the reality that this is a big-time program with one potential lottery pick on the roster (Rui Hachimura), another in the NBA (Zach Collins), a 21-year string of trips to the tournament and, now, its third No. 1 seeding in seven years.

The confetti will fall the evening of Monday, April 8 inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

A rematch of this season’s Maui Jim Maui Invitational championship game could happen in the national semifinals — Gonzaga, the lowest No. 1 seed, defeated Duke in an 89-87 thriller at Lahaina Civic Center last November.

In addition to the two No. 1 seeds, the Maui Invitational also included Iowa State, the Big 12 tournament champion, and Auburn, the SEC tournament winner.