While most folks aren’t Duke fans, it’s hard to not be a Zion fan. He’s received hype all season long, bringing more attention to the Duke Blue Devils than they probably deserved. Not to say the athletes on this team aren’t talented – it would be dumb to say a team with three top NBA draft prospects isn’t talented. Looking back at Duke’s season, they did well but not anything extraordinary or out of the norm for them, yet they received probably the most coverage in college basketball thanks to Zion. He’s a force and beyond his talent, he actually seems to be a good teammate and fun kid. What’s not to like about a kid that plays hard for his team while knowing he’s about to go number one in the draft? He easily could have been like “I’ve shown the country I have talent and am the best right now. I’ll focus on my career outside of Durham.” Instead, he shows up to every game wanting to play and loving his team. Again, what’s not to love about this kid on a surface level? Oh, right, he plays for the Duke Blue Devils, one of the most hated teams in sports (right up there with the New England Patriots, Golden State Warriors, Detroit Red Wings, and Boston Red Sox).
Disliking the Duke men’s basketball program feels natural because it plays into the fun of rivalries, even if your team has never played Duke in the history of their program. Doesn’t matter. You either like Duke or you don’t. Nobody has lukewarm feelings towards this team, which makes watching this team fun. Zion Williamson has only elevated the fun factor of watching Duke, so him playing in his final game is somewhat bittersweet.
On one hand, Duke had no business winning the national championship with the wins they managed to squeak by with in the tournament. Even in the regular season, think back to the Florida State game in January when Duke barely won, it was a game that Florida State should have won. Then the games in the tournament against UCF and Virginia Tech, Duke easily could have lost. Finally, they fell to Michigan State, and if they had not, my guess is divine intervention was on the side of the Blue Devils. Again, it’s not because the talent isn’t there, but because when the talent all works together they’re still just a really good team. The piece that really drives their media success is Zion.
Zion’s contributions to Duke on the court have nothing short of exciting. But the greatest success of Zion is making Duke an almost likable team to the general American public. Not a team people necessarily root for (they’re still Duke, after all), but a team that people just want to watch. It’s unfortunate we don’t get another college basketball season of Zion, but fortunately, we can still watch him in the NBA (fingers crossed he doesn’t go to another hated team).