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X-factor: Duke’s bigs must defend the perimeter against Virginia Tech

<p>Duke hopes Alex O'Connell can repeat his career performance last Saturday against the Hokies this Tuesday.</p>

Duke hopes Alex O'Connell can repeat his career performance last Saturday against the Hokies this Tuesday.

After avenging Syracuse’s early-season upset in Cameron with a big win at the Carrier Dome, Duke will look to keep rolling against Virginia Tech Tuesday—its fourth ranked opponent over the past six games. The Blue Zone looks at a key player for each team: 

Duke: Guard Alex O’Connell 

Without Zion Williamson against Syracuse, Duke needed someone to step up. And in his first start of the season, Alex O’Connell did just that. The sophomore poured in a career-high 20 points, including a 5-of-8 mark from downtown. And against Virginia Tech’s ninth-ranked scoring defense, the Blue Devils will need that same offensive spark—especially if Williamson remains relegated to the bench.  

The key to O’Connell, however, is consistency. Against Syracuse back in January, the Roswell, Ga. native, dropped a then-season high 16 points. But O’Connell then failed to top seven points in his next nine contests, including five scoreless appearances. So, in this next game against the Hokies, the Milton High School product has to prove he can be a reliable offensive factor outside of playing against the Orange’s 2-3 zone. 

If O’Connell can prove to be a lethal threat from beyond the arc, that will go a long way in opening the paint even once Williamson returns. But in order to do that, he needs to start proving he deserves the attention of opposing defenses on a consistent basis.  

Virginia Tech: Forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. 

If there’s one thing Duke struggles with on defense, it’s defending bigs who can shoot. While Javin DeLaurier—who tied a season-high with 27 minutes Saturday—has fared better than teammate Marques Bolden in defending the perimeter, neither have proven to be reliable in that facet of the game. Against Virginia Tech, though, both centers will need to be locked in defensively. 

In addition to leading the Hokies in rebounds with over seven per game, junior forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. has attempted 45 threes on the year—and has hit them at a 40 percent rate. Furthermore, the 6-foot-10 Orlando, Fla. native has been on a tear as of late, passing the 20-point threshold in three consecutive contests, hitting 5-of-9 three-point attempts during that span. 

Overall, the 250-pound big man has had an incredible season, posting career-highs in rebounds and assists. And if he can take advantage of his matchup with both DeLaurier and Bolden Tuesday, the Blue Devils could be looking at a long night in Blacksburg.