With Zion Williamson out, the second best player in the nation carries Duke to victory at Syracuse

Nearly every conversation about Duke since Wednesday night has revolved around Zion Williamson and whether the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft should ever play college basketball again. It didn't matter that the "shut it down" crowd could barely muster a single sensible point. The conversation still raged on every sports radio station, and sports television network, in this country.

Meantime, Duke was preparing to play without its star.

And though it would be incorrect to suggest the top-ranked Blue Devils looked great Saturday in an eventual 75-65 win over Syracuse inside the Carrier Dome, the game did serve as a reminder that Duke still has a healthy player most believe will be the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. And he looked the part in this one.

"It was about our whole team stepping up," RJ Barrett said afterward when ESPN's Maria Taylor asked if he believed he needed to do more in Williamson's absence.

It was a nice answer, I guess.

But Duke's "whole team" didn't really step up.

Cam Reddish took 11 shots and missed nine of them. Tre Jones took 12 shots and missed 10 of them. If anything, they stepped down. But Barrett was undeniably awesome. The 6-foot-7 freshman took 20 shots, made 14 of them and finished with 30 points, seven assists and five rebounds. It was his second straight 30-point game -- and his sixth of the season -- which means Barrett only needs one more to tie the record that Marvin Bagley set a year ago for most 30-point games by a Duke freshman in a season.

Think about that.

Bagley did things last season no other Duke freshmen had ever done. Now Barrett is on pace to break at least one of those records. And he's not even the best freshman on Duke's team!

That's still Zion, of course.

And shouts to Barrett for delivering a quote that will hopefully quiet the "Zion should shut it down" crowd forever. In addition to the fact that Williamson is barely risking anything by playing when healthy considering he'd still likely be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft even if he suffered a season-ending injury, there's this: "If he didn't want to risk it, he wouldn't have come to Duke," Barrett said. "He's a basketball player. He loves the game. He loves Duke -- and he loves playing with his brothers."

In other words, Zion will be back soon.

But until he is, it will be Barrett's responsibility to create and score. He led the Blue Devils (24-3, 12-2 ACC) in both points and assists against Syracuse (18-9, 9-5) -- and Duke won by double-digits even though Duke was dismal from beyond the 3-point line, per usual. The Blue Devils are now shooting just 30.6 percent from 3-point range on the season, which ranks 326th nationally; if they don't cut nets at the Final Four, that'll probably be the reason.

"RJ was such a man today," Krzyzewski said afterward in an accurate assessment of things. And if you're wondering why Duke is the favorite to win the national championship, it's rooted in this: Duke has college basketball's GOAT coach and arguably -- arguably but probably -- college basketball's best two players.

One was in street clothes Saturday.

But the other played.

And that was enough on the road against the Orange.

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Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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