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X-factor: Zion Williamson needs to find his groove early

<p>Zion Williamson's dominating presence in the paint will be essential for Duke's success against Gonzaga.</p>

Zion Williamson's dominating presence in the paint will be essential for Duke's success against Gonzaga.

After facing a tough test against Auburn in the semifinals, Duke looks to keep its perfect Maui Invitational record intact against No. 3 Gonzaga for the tournament championship. The Blue Zone analyzes a key player from each side who has the potential to make or break the matchup for his respective team: 

Duke: Forward Zion Williamson 

Williamson dominated over the Blue Devils’ first three games of the season, posting three consecutive 20-point performances while shooting above 80 percent from the floor. The Spartanburg, S.C. product was unstoppable, powering his way to the rim with ease and finishing nearly every time he got there. But in Maui, the freshman has struggled to get involved in the offense, especially during the first-half of games. 

Against San Diego State, Williamson was limited to just five points on 1-of-5 shooting over the first 20 minutes. The Aztecs double-teamed the 285-pound mammoth whenever he got the ball, making it difficult for him to find his rhythm offensively. Williamson would eventually finish with a season-low 13 points. 

Duke’s semifinal matchup with Auburn wasn’t much different. The Tigers held Williamson to just six points in the first-half and 13 overall yet again, as the Blue Devil forward seemed unable to finish in the paint like he did during his first few collegiate contests. Nevertheless, Duke was able to overcome its star’s struggles en route to its sixth Maui Invitational championship game. But if the Blue Devils hope to come out victorious over No. 3 Gonzaga—by far their biggest test of the tournament—something is going to have to change. 

Coach Mike Krzyzewski must make it a focal point to get Williamson involved in the offense early. If Duke is unable to get him going with some easy transition buckets, then the team has to set up some plays with his back to the basket. And once the ball is in his hands, the No. 2 overall prospect needs to be able to finish those inside looks, something he was so successful at early in the year. Otherwise, it is very tough seeing the Blue Devils getting past the Bulldogs for a sixth Maui championship. 

Gonzaga: Guard Zach Norvell Jr. 

Prior to Tuesday night, Duke had not won a game by fewer than 22 points. And despite the Blue Devils stretching their lead over Auburn to as much as 17, the Tigers were able to fight back for a narrow 78-72 defeat. The reason behind that relative success against the No. 1 team in the country? Deadeye three-point shooting. 

If Gonzaga hopes to pull off the upset over Duke Wednesday afternoon, it is going to have to hit shots from beyond the arc. The Blue Devils are simply too long and too athletic to try and win by attacking the basket. And who is the Bulldogs’ best long-range shooter? Redshirt sophomore Zach Norvell Jr. 

Norvell Jr. struggled mightily in the first-half of Gonzaga’s semifinal victory over Arizona, missing all eight of his shots including an 0-of-6 mark from downtown. His inability to knock down open looks was a leading cause of the Bulldogs’ 45-37 halftime deficit.  

But in the second-half, the Chicago, Ill. native finally got going. The four-star recruit from the class of 2016 hit six of his 10 shot attempts, including 3-of-7 from beyond the arc, and finished with 20 points. Furthermore, Gonzaga was able to pull off a 25-point turnaround for a 91-74 win.  

If Norvell Jr. is able to play the way he did in the second-half of the Bulldogs’ victory over the Wildcats for all 40 minutes against Duke, the country could be looking at a new No. 1 team come next week. 



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