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2019 NBA Draft: RJ Barrett's coast-to-coast game went around the world before fueling Duke's title hopes

2019 NBA Draft: RJ Barrett's coast-to-coast game went around the world before fueling Duke's title hopes

WASHINGTON – The legend of Duke freshman RJ Barrett began years ago and gained momentum in a country far, far away.

The top college basketball recruit for the 2018 class honed his skills in Mississauga, Ontario. Part of the rise of Canadian players that watched Vince Carter soar for the Toronto Raptors and British Columbia’s Steve Nash become a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, Barrett flashed his cut-above game in middle school.

That’s when fellow Canadian Nickeil Walker-Alexander first became aware of the player who would go on to set the Duke freshman single-season record for points, with a chance for more. 

Walker-Alexander, Virginia Tech’s leading scorer, recalled attending a tournament in Ontario to watch his young cousin. One of the other kids stood out. The one who along with Duke teammate Zion Williamson garnered NBA Draft buzz all season, and has fans hoping their team receives lottery luck.

“The same, but just not as developed,” Walker-Alexander said of Barrett’s prior work one day before the fourth-seeded Hokies and the top-seeded Blue Devils meet Friday in a Sweet 16 matchup at Capital One Arena. 

“Pretty dominant for his age,” Walker-Alexander continued. “Scoring and affecting the game. Way more athletic than kids then. I think he was dunking.”

Barrett, a savvy 6-foot-7 wing threat with natural scoring skills and winning traits, improved exponentially from there by the time others outside of North America took notice.

At the 2017 FIBA U19 World Championship in Egypt, Canada stunned a Team USA squad coached by Kentucky’s John Calipari. The game’s best player was a 17-year-old Barrett, who had 38 points and 13 rebounds despite being two years younger than most on the court.

The scoring surges haven’t stopped. Neither has Barrett’s knack for producing in the most significant moments. 

His putback off a Williamson missed free throw in the final seconds of Duke’s 77-76 win over Central Florida Sunday saved the Blue Devils from being on the wrong end of one of college basketball’s greatest upsets.

“Just confidence,” Barrett said Thursday of maintaining poise in the pressure-packed spot. “At the end of the game, you're not thinking about anything else but winning. And that's why we're able to make those game-winning plays.”

The scoring, smarts and steadiness are among the reasons why Barrett is a likely top-3 selection in June’s draft. 

Williamson generates the most attention for his otherworldly athleticism, but Barrett leads Duke with 22.8 points per game while ranking second in rebounds (7.7) and assists (4.1).

The Wizards, who currently have a 23.1 percent chance of landing a top-4 selection in June’s draft, could certainly use more playmaking beyond two-time All-Star Bradley Beal. Though Barrett projects as a two-guard, his size and passing game would allow the coaching staff to play him with Beal. 

Barrett and another freshman, Cam Reddish, provide the Blue Devils with offensive pop from the wing.

“They can score and they are really good players, so it’s not enough to say my hand was up,” Walker-Alexander said of defending Barrett and Reddish based on their battles in ACC play this season. “You’ve got to make it uncomfortable.”

Watch Barrett and Williamson remain calm late in close games, or smile with ease on the podium with dozens of reporters and cameras focused on them. Uncomfortable doesn’t seem like a vibe familiar to either player.

“[Zion and RJ are] not in uncharted territory here. They’re very mature,” Duke assistant Nate James told NBC Sports Washington. “They understand the camera is always on them. They’ve been thrown in pressure situations almost since they became ‘Zion’ and ‘RJ,’ They’ve adapted to the spotlight. … Everything that you possibly think off that could get these guys off their game was thrown at them, and they’ve responded. It’s the new normal for them.”

Barrett’s game is not without concerns. He enters Friday shooting a mere 31.3 percent on 3-point attempts and 66.2 percent from the free throw line. Defensive struggles were evident chasing around UCF’s Aubrey Dawkins, who scored 32 points against Duke. 

At one point, Barrett and Williamson were contenders for No. 1 pick status. Now Williamson has soared to the top, and Murray State point guard Ja Morant passed Barrett in the eyes of some evaluators. 

There’s just no denying Barrett’s know-how or desire to dominate. 

“His aggression on both ends of the floor. His will to win,” Reddish said of Barrett’s impact beyond the numbers. “Whether it’s a shooting competition or a game or practice, he loves to win.”

Two future first-round picks, including Maryland’s Kevin Huerter along with Reddish, were on that 2017 Team USA squad most assumed would triumph. The U.S. won the gold medal in 2013 and 2015.

“The reality was, one kid really went crazy, and then the rest of their kids did what they did, so hats off to them,” Calipari said after the loss. 

That kid started showing his wares years ago north of the border and across the globe. NBA teams are banking on him thriving for years to come. Duke hopes such future talk doesn’t become Barrett's main focus for a few more days.

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March Madness 2019: How to Watch Duke vs. Virginia Tech TV channel, time live stream

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March Madness 2019: How to Watch Duke vs. Virginia Tech TV channel, time live stream

After taking care of business against Saint Louis and Liberty in the first two rounds, Virginia Tech has reached its first Sweet Sixteen since 1967.

However, the fourth-seeded Hokies now face a daunting task against No. 1 overall seed and ACC rival Duke. 

Virginia Tech did beat the Blue Devils in their only previous meeting this season, winning a 77-72 contest at Cassell Coliseum on Feb. 26. But Duke did not have Zion Williamson that night, and the superstar forward will be in the starting five when the two teams face off in the East Regional Semifinal on Friday, March 29. 

That said, Duke is coming off a major scare from UCF in the second round, the Blue Devils barely scraping out a 77-76 victory over the Knights. Will playing a de facto home game at Capital One Arena give the Hokies some hope?

Here is the NCAA Tournament information:

Virginia Tech vs. Duke How to Watch

What: 2019 NCAA Tournament East Regional Semifinal (Sweet Sixteen)

Who: No. 4 Virginia Tech (26-8, 12-6 ACC) vs. No. 1 Duke (31-5, 14-4 ACC)

When: 9:39 p.m. ET on Friday, March 29

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C. 

TV Channel: CBS

Online Stream: March Madness Live on NCAA.com

TV Announcers: Jim Nantz / Bill Raftery / Grant Hill // Tracy Wolfson 

Twitter: @HokiesMBB@DukeMBB

Virginia Tech vs. Duke Bracket Analysis

How They Got Here: Virginia Tech (at-large), Duke (auto-bid, ACC champions)

Previous Meeting: 77-71 Saint Louis win on Nov. 16, 2017 (Virginia Tech leads all-time series 7-1)

Next Round: Winner of No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 LSU

East Region Bracket:

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Virginia Tech

No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 LSU

Virginia Tech vs. Duke Betting Spread, Lines & Odds

Favorites: Duke -7
Over/Under: 144
Money Line: Virginia Tech +275, Duke -330
Against The Spread: Virginia Tech (18-15-1), Duke (18-18)

Betting lines found on BetOnline.ag

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The return of Zion Williamson great news for Duke, and even better news for March Madness fans

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The return of Zion Williamson great news for Duke, and even better news for March Madness fans

Zion Williamson is returning to the court for the Duke Blue Devils in advance of the ACC Tournament, and it could not come at a better time for NCAA Tournament fans.

The freshman phenom and ACC Player of the Year has been out of action since injuring his knee in the opening moments of Duke's 88-72 loss to North Carolina on Feb. 20. With Williamson sidelined for the final five games of the regular season, the Blue Devils finished 3-2, and dropped to the No. 3 seed in the 2019 ACC Tournament.

Williamson will be back on the floor when Duke takes on No. 7 seed Syracuse in quarterfinal action Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C., the program announced earlier in the day.

But his return isn't just great news for Duke, one of the few legitimate National Championship contenders. It's great news for anyone who loves March Madness.

The 2018-19 college basketball season has not been that great. Blue bloods like UCLA, Indiana, and Kansas are down, and the fringe blue blood teams that typically step up in the absence of other elite programs, teams like Arizona and Louisville, are down as well.

What that means is the fate of March Madness rests on the behemoth shoulders of Zion Williamson. That's not to say that the NCAA Tournament won't be incredible. The success of the first weekend is dictated by upsets, cinderellas and March miracles. But as the field is whittled down, and our brackets are busted, we care less about the underdogs and more about the star potential.

Up until Thursday morning, few had any information about whether or not Williamson would return to the court at all. During his five-game absence, fans and pundits alike argued over whether or not he should sit out and begin focusing on the NBA Draft. If he were to have done that, the NCAA Tournament would still be entertaining, because it always is. But without Zion in the tournament, Duke's chances of making a deep run would take a hit, as would the casual fan's desire to watch the second and third weekends of tournament coverage.

There is no one in the country with more star potential than Zion Williamson. He's college basketball's only superstar, and in a very down year for the sport, he is the only hope for a full month of front page college basketball news.

Click here to join NBC Sports Washington’s NCAA Tournament Bracket Challenge and compete against Wizards analysts Drew Gooden and Jimmy Patsos for a chance at great prizes.

Grand Prize: if you have the highest-scoring bracket in the NBC Sports Washington Bracket Challenge, you will win a 3-night trip for four people to Universal Resort, including round trip airfare, lodging, admission to Universal Studios and tickets to Blue Man Group.

Secondary Prize: If your bracket scores higher than both Drew Gooden and Jimmy Patsos, you win a coupon code for a free Jersey Mike's sub!

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