first_imgFreshmen like Zion Williamson.SN’s MARCH MADNESS HQLive NCAA bracket | Live scoreboard | Full TV schedule​We’ve said before there have been no freshmen — no players — like Zion. His strength and dynamism have been unmatched in any college player his size, ever. That has been obvious from the night he introduced himself to America with an astounding performance in the Champions Classic. He does not play above the rim. He plays at altitude.It soon became apparent to those scouting against him, though, that Williamson’s excellence was borne as much of his understanding of how to use his physical gifts. He set up defenders using his overwhelming leverage and ignited moves too quickly for them to react. He showed he was more than a dunker on offense and good for much more than showy blocks on defense.However, when Michigan State All-American Cassius Winston escaped Duke’s attempt to foul him with a few seconds left and, with the Spartans ahead by a point in the NCAA East Region final, he dribbled alone into the frontcourt and on toward the Final Four. Then, Williamson simply was one of four in his class who might never again wear the Duke uniform. Their pain was not disguised.“A lot is obviously going through our mind right now,” Williamson told reporters after the game. “I’m very upset, obviously, because we wanted to go to the Final Four. But congrats to Michigan State. They deserve it. They played a hell of a game.“And just look around the locker room and see your teammates, your brothers. And you think, just, this group probably never will play together.”It’s quite likely we never will see another Zion Williamson in college basketball, and that’s unfortunate. For him, and for whoever that next transcendent player might be. There will be a No. 1 player in the class of 2019, 2020 and, we expect, 2021. But it’s unlikely any will make the overwhelming impact Williamson delivered in just his freshman year at Duke. He was Sporting News’ national player of the year and soon will pick up every other major POY honor: Naismith, Wooden, Oscar Robertson. He will be invited to the Final Four to pick up some of the trophies. Whether he’ll wish to go seems an issue for another day.Presumably in 2022, the NBA will go forward with its imprudent plan to lower the draft age limit to 18 years. The pressure on that top prospect to become a professional will arrive not upon the doorstep of his freshman dorm, but outside his bedroom at home when he still is in high school. That player will get paid to play, but he will not see the benefits Williamson gained both on and off the court from dominating this level of competition.MORE: Zion’s year at Duke more beneficial than straight-to-NBA route“Every day we came in, worked our butts off, and we really gave everything that we had all season long, and we had so much success,” said his good friend and fellow pro-in-waiting, RJ Barrett. “All credit to them. They played a hell of a game. But for it to be over for us is heartbreaking.”In another time, it might not have been over. It seems almost quaint now, but Chris Webber played a second season of basketball. Shaquille O’Neal played three. The goal then was to enter the league prepared to be worthy of the sort of high-dollar contract the NBA only would consider paying to veterans now. For 25 years, rookies have had their salaries capped at comparatively meager figures — comparative not only to what All-Stars are paid now, but to what rookies were paid back in the ’90s.Whether Williamson or Barrett would wish to play another season at Duke almost is moot. The league and players association have constructed a mechanism that makes that illogical.At the least, they showed they were invested fully in their one year in Durham. When many suggested Williamson would not play again after his knee injury scare — when some suggested he should not — he returned triumphantly and carried Duke to an ACC Championship and No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. He never dropped the expectations from his broad shoulders, scoring 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds and making several dazzling defensive plays that caused more than one Spartan to reconsider his next approach to the basket.MSU coach Tom Izzo and his staff concocted a brilliant game plan to cope with Zion’s menace, however, attacking him with multiple defenders as often as possible when he caught the ball around the lane. Williamson missed nine shots, the second-most in any game this season, and tied his career-high for turnovers with five. Spartans center Xavier Tillman, a backup until big Nick Ward broke his hand in late February, excelled in that matchup as few before him.“That had to be a crushing loss for Duke,” Izzo said. “They had such an incredible year with the injuries; at the end it’s tough. But I told my team, the way Mike Krzyzewski and his players handled it was so classy, I was almost — not embarrassed, but I said I had to really look at how I make sure my team handles losses. I think we do a decent job, but that was off-the-charts classy.”This is the second consecutive season Duke fell one step short of the Final Four, and the second consecutive season that goal was crushed by the thinnest of margins. Last year it was in overtime against Kansas out in Omaha, an extra period that resulted when Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen attempted a game-winning shot that rolled off the rim just as the buzzer sounded.This time it was closer to home in Washington, and the Devils’ chance to tie the game was spoiled with six seconds left when Barrett missed the first of two free throws. He tried to miss the second, but it accidentally popped through the goal.MORE: Williamson leads SN’s All-AmericansThe miss and the make each was its own sort of disaster. Because when the second went through the net, the Devils hadn’t committed enough fouls for MSU to be near the bonus. They fouled once, but so long as the Spartans could inbound without turning it over, Duke’s chance of getting back the ball was slim. MSU gambled on a play to get the ball to Winston moving down the sideline — and hit it. There was no chance Duke would catch him then. “They played their hearts out all year,” Krzyzewski said. “These guys have been an incredible group for me to coach, especially at this time in my career to be around a group that you love being around every day, that has accomplished so much and really have … had to lead the whole year with the tension and the schedule and everything else, and they’ve handled things so beautifully.“And I feel bad for them. They’re deserving of, like, special things and they have had a special year. But this not going to the Final Four is obviously a huge disappointment for us.”That it was hard to take was easy to see. The dreams die harder now. It’s there on the floor when the games immediately are over, and in the locker rooms when the 10-minute cooling off period turns out not to be sufficient before reporters enter to talk.It always has been tough for seniors. They enter knowing their careers are about to be over, and they hope only to end them happily. They are not alone anymore. Juniors, sophomores and freshmen are doing this NCAA Tournament thing for the last time, as well.last_img