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X factor: Duke basketball vs. Utah

The Blue Devils will continue to dance Friday night, when they confront fifth-seeded Utah in the squad’s 22nd Sweet 16 appearance during head coach Mike Krzyzewski's tenure. The contest will commence Friday at 9:45 p.m. at NRG Stadium in Houston, with the victor advancing to the Elite Eight for a matchup against the winner of the game between 11th-seeded UCLA and second-seeded Gonzaga. Prior to each game this season, the Blue Zone will break down a player from each team who could be the key to success.

Duke: guard Quinn Cook

In his final season with the Blue Devils, senior captain Quinn Cook has put together his best year yet—recording a career-high 15.8 points per game, accompanied by career-highs in minutes, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, 3-point field goals made and free throw percentage. Cook’s 3-point prowess will be crucial as the team encounters Utah’s solid defense. The Utes boast one of the best defenses in the country, allowing just .90 points per possession according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's metric, which is just adjusted based on opponent. However, Cook’s success stems from his consistency. The 6-foot-2 veteran has contributed at least one 3-point field goal in his last 45 games, knocking down 100 3-point field goals this season.

For Utah, 5-foot-10 Brandon Taylor will likely be matched up against Cook. In the Utes' victory against Georgetown to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005, Taylor—who averages 10.5 points per game on the season—recorded 14 points. Like Cook, Taylor shines from beyond the arc, hitting at almost a 44 percent clip from deep, and if the Blue Devils' sharpshooter is the one who cools off Friday, Duke could struggle to generate its usual spacing. Look for Cook to try get off to a hot start on both ends and lead his team one step closer to Indianapolis.

Utah: guard Delon Wright

With his well-rounded game and consistent performance, Wright will present a threat to the top-seeded Blue Devils as the Utes look to keep their season alive. After leading Utah in scoring, assists and steals during the regular season, the Los Angeles native will definitely be one to watch when the lights go on Friday night. To exploit Duke’s aggressiveness on defense, Wright’s execution in pick-and-roll situations will be critical for a team that can struggle to score at times. The 6-foot-5 senior shoots 51.8 percent from the field to get his 14.9 points per game, so Wright's efficiency with the ball in his hands and ability to get to the foul line could pose problems for the Blue Devils.

Many have compared Wright to Jerian Grant of Notre Dame—which beat Duke twice this year—so don't be surprised if like Grant, Wright does a lot of his damage by attracting attention before setting up Taylor and company. But if the Blue Devils can make Wright uncomfortable or at least contain him, it is hard to see how the Utes can keep up with Duke, unless the Blue Devils have a markedly bad offensive performance.


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