- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2019

Baseball wasn’t the only sport that returned to the District this weekend.

The NCAA Tournament has descended upon Washington for the first time since 2013, and Duke superstar Zion Williamson will be the marquee attraction at the East Regional semifinal games Friday at Capital One Arena.

No. 1 Duke is set to play No. 4 Virginia Tech, an ACC foe, in the latter Sweet 16 game Friday night. The winner will play the winner of No. 2 Michigan State against No. 3 LSU in Sunday’s East Regional final.

The Hokies were one of the few teams to topple the Blue Devils this season — although that happened during Williamson’s six-game absence due to a knee sprain, suffered when he blew threw his sneaker Feb. 20.

“I’m going to enjoy playing the rematch because it was very unfortunate to see my brothers lose, even though they battled really hard,” Williamson said. “And I’m just glad to be able to go to war with them.”

But for those discounting Virginia Tech, senior Justin Robinson — who was also sidelined for that victory over Duke — added a reminder that the Hokies beat Duke in three of his four seasons on campus. He doesn’t believe the national stage and high-profile opponent will throw his team off.

“I don’t think we’re excited for the moment; I think it’s just another game for us,” Robinson said. “And I think we’re going to be ready for whatever is going to come for us to end the game.”

Williamson and fellow freshmen R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones have powered Duke throughout the season, resembling John Calipari’s recent Kentucky teams stocked with top one-and-done recruits who’d all go on to be NBA Draft lottery picks.

But coach Mike Krzyzewski chuckled at the idea that this is one of his best teams ever.

“I just want to know how long ‘ever’ is for you,” he said. “No offense, but ever is a long time.”

Still, Duke needed to survive an upset push by Central Florida in the second round to advance to the District. Williamson and Barrett scored the last two baskets of the game to get the Blue Devils the 77-76 win.

In the game between the second and third seeds, Michigan State faces LSU, the SEC regular season champion which sent Maryland home from the second round, beating the Terrapins 69-67 with a game-winning layup in the final seconds.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo and his players spoke highly of the Tigers’ athleticism, particularly in the frontcourt, with Izzo saying they were “a completely different foe than any we’ve faced so far.”

“I say they go with vengeance. They almost go violently to the offensive boards and have done an incredible job with that,” Izzo said.

LSU has struggled against zone defenses this year, but Michigan State center Nick Ward said his team will stick to its man-to-man principles — though Izzo later had something slightly different to say.

“We’re not guarding any one of their guys with one person. They’re too big and athletic to do that,” Izzo said. “So we’ll be cheating and having people on all sides of him.”

This game could come down to a battle between two of the best point guards in the country, LSU’s Tremont Waters and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston.

“Obviously (he’s) a great all-around player offensively and defensively, but watching film I just see that he’s really good in transition,” Waters said of his counterpart. “He controls the offense. He runs the team, and everything pretty much runs through him.”

If the chalk again advances in this region and the Elite Eight becomes a matchup of the top two seeds, Duke and Michigan State will play each other in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time, creating a rematch of a 2015 Final Four game. Both teams are considered blue-chip programs, but Duke has the 4-1 advantage in tournament games.

Izzo joked that he complains about the expectations the media, fans and alumni have for his team, but said “those expectations are a privilege and an honor to have.”

“Mike (Krzyzewski)’s got arguably the best as far as consistently doing something,” Izzo said. “I look at football programs. I look at pro sports. And I try to steal things from them that I think can help my team understand that those expectations can be a burden or they can be a joy.”

Michigan State and LSU tip off Friday at 7:09 p.m., with Duke and Virginia Tech scheduled to follow them at 9:39 p.m.. Both games will be televised on CBS.

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