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X-factor: R.J. Barrett prepares to bury the Cardinals alive

<p>R.J. Barrett has been the lone efficient Blue Devil so far.</p>

R.J. Barrett has been the lone efficient Blue Devil so far.

Duke hopes to keep its conference undefeated streak on the road alive Tuesday night. The Blue Zone takes a look at a player from each team that could be a difference-maker in the game.

Duke: R.J. Barrett 

Surely, few Louisville basketball players dreamed of attending their own funeral one day, but Tuesday is their chance, according to Duke freshman forward R.J. Barrett. When asked about the team’s mentality heading into Saturday’s matchup against Virginia, Barrett responded, “We love road games. That’s why we wear black—[because] it’s their funeral.” 

The freshman appeared a veteran burier at the onset of Saturday’s contest at Virginia, as he sunk his first five attempts from beyond the arc. Before the Virginia game, Barrett’s single-game high three-point makes stood at just four—he hit his fifth trey of the game with over eight minutes left in the first half. Barrett drained another triple in the second half en route to a team-high 26 points, marking his seventh conference game above the 20-point mark. His seven rebounds were also a team high. 

Barrett will look to lead the rites again, this time in the cheerfully named KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. The Blue Devils likely will show up clad in their favored black road uniforms, which should scare the entirety of head coach Chris Mack’s pack-line defense. Duke hasn’t lost while wearing them. I’ll be impressed if a Cardinal defender manages more than three seconds of direct eye contact with Barrett Tuesday—after all, whoever guards him will be staring death in the face. 

Louisville: Ryan McMahon/Louisville trainers 

Everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown Zion Williamson’s way in vain attempt to stop him—though it’s rumored that Roy Williams has been testing out some sink-related strategies in private scrimmages. Shove-fests, double teams, trash talking—none of it has limited Zion’s ability to score, defend and generally humiliate the opposing team on the basketball court. In fact, these strategies intended to find a way into the freshman’s head seemed to backfire, propelling Zion to a greater scale of domination than normal. The only containment strategy that has produced any measure of success thus far is removing his talent from the court entirely. In other words, foul trouble for Zion means less trouble for the opposing team. 

Yes, drawing a foul on Zion Williamson will be painful. Just ask Syracuse’s bony forward Marek Dolezaj, who received Williamson’s Jeep-like momentum transfer rather ungracefully and required medical attention afterwards. But someone on No. 16 Louisville’s roster must sacrifice his body to limit Williamson. One can only hope that Jordan Nwora or Steven Enoch, who are most likely to pull the short straw Tuesday, has an adequate health care plan. 

Once a foul is called, though, the Cardinals must be competent free throw shooters. Luckily for them, the charity stripe is Louisville’s specialty area, as its 76.5 percent conversion rate is the 13th-highest in the country. Foremost among the Cardinal’s many foul line experts is Ryan McMahon, a sharpshooting guard who makes 94 percent of his free throws. Williamson’s potential absence in the interior could open up the lane for McMahon to drive and draw contact. McMahon comes off the bench but scores efficiently for Louisville, boasting a 63.7 true shooting percentage. In the Cardinals’ 72-64 victory against then No. 11 Virginia Tech, McMahon tallied a game-high 17 points while shooting 4-of-5 from beyond the arc and nailing all five of his free throws. 

The Cardinals are no stranger to playing talented teams, but Williamson’s skill may be just a bit too strange for an outmanned Louisville squad. Louisville’s only hope is to eliminate at least one of Duke’s four freshman standouts and put snipers like McMahon in position for success. If the Cardinals can’t get to the line—either via bop or flop—they will wish they had flown south for the winter. 


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