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Duke claims first No. 1 seed since 2015. The last time it happened, the Blue Devils won it all.

Duke’s Zion Williamson slams in two in victory over UNC

Watch a time-lapse as Duke's Zion Williamson slams in two in the Blue Devils' victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament semifinals in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, March 15, 2019.
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Watch a time-lapse as Duke's Zion Williamson slams in two in the Blue Devils' victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament semifinals in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, March 15, 2019.

In the last three NCAA tournaments, Duke found itself swimming upstream against the bracket as it failed to secure a No. 1 seed.

All three times, having been awarded a No. 4 seed and a pair of No. 2 seeds, the Blue Devils fell short of the Final Four.

This season, for the first time since its national championship season in 2015, Duke not only starts on the top line, but at the top of the entire bracket.

Fresh off an ACC championship, the Blue Devils (29-5) are the No. 1 overall seed for tournament, playing in the East Region where they will begin play in Columbia, S.C., on Friday at 7:10 p.m. on CBS.

“It feels great,” Duke freshman, and ACC player of the year, Zion Williamson said Sunday night in a statement released by Duke. “It shows that all of our hard work is paying off so, let’s dance.”

The school did not make players or coaches available for questions Sunday but released comments.

Duke’s opponent will be a No. 16 seed, either Durham neighbor N.C. Central (18-15) or North Dakota State (18-15). Those teams play in First Four game on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, at 6:40 p.m. on TruTV, with the winner advancing to play Duke.

A first-round win would advance the Blue Devils to face either No. 8 seed Virginia Commonwealth (25-7) or No. 9 seed Central Florida (23-8) in the second round on Sunday.

The East Region semifinals and final will be played in Washington, D.C., at Capital One Arena on March 29 and 31.

Since its fifth NCAA championship four years ago, Duke reached, in order, the rounds of 16, 32, and eight before being sent home over last three NCAA tournaments. Only one of those losses, in 2017 to South Carolina, came when the Blue Devils were the higher-seeded team.

This season, the Blue Devils played like one of the nation’s top teams for long stretches, starting 14-1. Duke was 23-2 on Feb. 20 when Williamson sprained his right knee during an 88-72 loss to North Carolina.

Williamson played just 36 seconds that night and missed the final five regular-season games. The Blue Devils went 3-3 in those six games to put itself in danger of failing below the No. 1 seed line on the NCAA tournament bracket.

But Williamson’s return allowed Duke to regain its look as a national championship contender. He scored 81 points over three games as Duke beat Syracuse, North Carolina and Florida State on consecutive nights to win the ACC tournament.

The selection committee was impressed enough to declare Duke as the tournament favorite, awarding it the No. 1 overall seed.

“We really need to continue to improve our offense and continue to play with each other,” Duke associate head coach Jon Scheyer said in comments released by Duke. “Obviously Zion looked great and getting him back was huge, but now we need to continue to work on our offensive execution. Once you get into the tournament, there is a lot of half-court offense you have to play, so continuing to improve on that and defensively continue to build. We did a great job in that last game against Florida State but we need to continue to keep getting better and obviously in the tournament you need to get stops when it matters.”

Though starting center Marques Bolden missed the ACC tournament recovering from a sprained knee, the Blue Devils played with confidence as its four freshmen starters, including Williamson, were back together.

“We got it back, we got the thing back rolling,” Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones said Saturday night after the ACC title game. “Hopefully we’ll get Marques back soon and be back full strength again and keep it rolling in the NCAA tournament.”

The ACC title is Duke’s second in the last three years. Its 2017 squad became the first team to win four games in four days and claim the ACC tournament crown.

Seeded No. 2 in the East Region and No. 7 in the overall field that year by the selection committee, the Blue Devils were upset by No. 7 seed South Carolina, 88-81, in a second-round game at Greenville, S.C.

Duke junior Javin DeLaurier, a team captain, was a freshman on that team, which included three players who were first-round NBA Draft picks in that summer’s draft in sophomore Luke Kennard and freshmen Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles.

He said this year’s team still has hunger to add the sport’s biggest prize even after it’s championship accomplishment at the ACC tournament.

“We won this and it’s a great accomplishment for our team, obviously,” DeLaurier said Saturday night. “But we want the next one really badly. We just know that the NCAA tournament is the same deal, 0-0. All it takes is one game, one game and you can get sent home. That’s the end of your season. I think this team will have something special. I think we have what it takes to win the national championship.”

Big Ten champion Michigan State is the No. 2 seed in the East Region, with LSU seeded No. 3 and Virginia Tech No. 4.

The only team among those three Duke played in the regular season was Virginia Tech. The Hokies beat Duke 77-72 on Feb. 26 at Blacksburg, Va. Williamson missed that game for Duke, but the Hokies were without senior guard Justin Robinson. Virginia Tech announced on Sunday that Robinson will return for the NCAA tournament.

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.