By Eddie Pells

The Associated Press

The clock is ticking. The rest of college basketball has three weeks to figure out how to stop Duke’s freshman force of nature, Zion Williamson.

Williamson and the Blue Devils got the overall top seed in the tournament, while Gonzaga and two more Atlantic Coast Conference teams — North Carolina and Virginia — also received No. 1 seeds. Three teams in one conference on the top line matches a record, and offers the selection committee’s guess as to who has the best chance to slow down Duke.

The Blue Devils opened as a 9-4 favorite to win it all.

Williamson, the 6-foot-7 man-child averaging 22 points and nine rebounds and a near-certain top pick in the upcoming NBA draft, is putting his future on the line in hopes of adding his own chapter to the history of America’s most dream-indulged hoops extravaganza. He is doing it only four weeks after wrenching his knee when his Nike sneaker blew out and sent him crashing to the floor. He missed five games. He wouldn’t dare miss this.

“Everybody has their right to their own opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time,” Williamson said in his return last week, when he led Duke to its 21st ACC tournament title.

Speaking of shoes … the companies that make them are intrinsically, financially and, yes, toxically intertwined with the players who fill out Division I rosters. The tournament will once again be played against the backdrop of a long list of problems that plague the NCAA and college hoops.

Despite the sordid headlines and the requisite amount of pre-tournament nose-holding, the next three weeks are certain to inspire and amaze us.

Will this year’s magic come from 14th-seeded Old Dominion, whose coach, Jeff Jones, revealed he is battling prostate cancer?

Or from the UC Irvine Anteaters, the 13th seed in the South who are as good as any team in California this season?

Or maybe even from Gonzaga, whose very smallness seems to eternally mask the reality that this is a big-time program?

The confetti will fall the evening of Monday, April 8 inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Then, on April 9, the focus shifts from courtside back to the courtroom, the negotiating table and, in some cases, the jail cell.

The NBA and its union will try to inch closer to ending the one-and-done rule that receives plenty of blame for the NCAA’s troubles.

But forget all that for now.

One and done is what gave us Zion and his freshman teammates, R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish, for a single, precious season at Duke.

It also gave us the dozens of programs that don’t, or can’t, consistently attract that kind of talent. Those teams are, in many cases, cheered as underdogs for that very reason.

Their goal this March appears straightforward, though anything but simple: Assuming his shoes hold up, someone’s got to stop Williamson before he exits stage right, never to look back, on his way to the NBA.

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