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Duke must get back on track without Zion Williamson

For the second time in less than a week, all Zion Williamson could do was sit back and watch from the bench as his team struggled to find an identity without him.

Coach K’s squads aren’t exactly immortal in Blacksburg to begin with. Just ask the No. 1 Duke team that fell in front of a raucous Virginia Tech crowd on Feb. 26, 2011 in one of the Hokies’ biggest wins in program history, or even last year’s team that checked in at No. 5 before getting upset, 64-63, once again on Feb. 26.

So when No. 20 Virginia Tech hosted No. 3 Duke minus Williamson — who sustained a grade one sprain in his right knee in the early moments of the Blue Devils’ blowout loss to then-No. 8 North Carolina — in the hectic atmosphere at the Cassell Coliseum, the results are another Feb. 26 upset, 77-72.

The loss drops Duke a half-game back of No. 5 North Carolina and No. 2 Virginia in the ACC with only three games remaining — including one final road test against the Tar Heels.

As important as positioning in the ACC tournament might be, nothing seems to take priority over the health of Williamson or the number of games he is expected to be watching from the sideline. As the projected No. 1 overall draft pick proceeds through Duke’s four-step recovery process, there still doesn’t appear to be any real rush for his return.

Whether the superstar sits out for the remainder of the regular season, through the ACC tournament or beyond, is yet to be determined. But that means this Williamson-less Duke squad has to figure a few things out, and there’s not much time to do it.

Virginia Tech set the tempo and Duke never questioned it

The Hokies established their pace from the start, and they never got away from it. In fact, Duke never really challenged them. The Blue Devils struggled to establish their style of play, which in large part is a result of the Hokies’ aggressive defense and limited turnovers.

Virginia Tech was able to find high percentage shots for most of the night. Duke had no answers for junior forward Kerry Blackshear, who dominated his way to a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double.

Seniors Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw were both 50% from the field and combined for 28 points. The rest of the team wasn’t far behind, shooting a collective 46%. One of the most striking stats for the Blue Devils’ defense, aside from Virginia Tech’s high shooting percentage, was the number of forced turnovers: six, only one of which was a steal.

R.J. Barrett’s tale of two halves and Jack White’s abysmal shooting percentage

Barrett was hardly recognizable as things got started. The freshman forward, who failed to score before sinking a pair of free throws with 5:47 left in the first half, looked passive early on. While Virginia Tech’s swarming defense refused to let Barrett get to his left hand, or anywhere close to the paint, it’s hard to imagine any team in the country limiting the first-round prospect to one field goal and four points in a half.

All it took was halftime for Barrett to revive his game, though. He started forcing his way to the basket and immediately found a rhythm en route to a 21-point night. Even then, the only significant help he received was from Marques Bolden, who put up 14 points after dealing with foul trouble for most of the second half, and 17 points from Cam Reddish.

Virginia Tech seemingly left Tre Jones alone, and was more than willing to let Jack White shoot as much as his confidence allowed. White was 0-of-3 from beyond the arc, extending his streak to 28 straight missed three-pointers. White hasn’t seen a single shot from downtown hit the bottom of the net since Jan. 12.

Duke will look to find some answers at home against Miami and Wake Forest before making the trip to Chapel Hill on March 9 in the regular-season finale. Virginia doesn’t have any ranked opponents remaining on its schedule and appears to be in the best position to secure the top seed for the ACC tournament. At this point, though, Duke and Zion Williamson have bigger things to worry about than the conference tournament.

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