Sunday night, the top-seeded Blue Devils narrowly avoided an upset at the hands of Central Florida 77-76 in Columbia, S.C, advancing to the Sweet 16. The Blue Zone breaks down three key takeaways, three key stats and looks forward for the Duke squad:
Three Key Takeaways:
1. Zion Williamson can't be stopped
With his 285-pound frame, Williamson rarely takes the floor against someone bigger than him in size, but that changed Sunday as he matched up against Tacko Fall, who stands at 7-foot-6 and 310 pounds. Fall got the best of Williamson on a handful of plays, blocking him three times and making life difficult for him on the defensive end. Still, Williamson was able to outdo the senior, putting up 32 points and 11 rebounds to Fall’s 15 and 6.
Williamson's most impressive play of the evening was his clutch and-one layup in the last minute of the game, bringing the Blue Devils within one point and giving Fall his fifth foul. Zion proved that he doesn’t need a size advantage to dominate a game, setting up a potentially historic run for the freshman during the rest of the tournament.
2. Defense does just enough to get by
Towards the end of the first half, it looked as though the Blue Devils had figured out the UCF offense. Jordan Goldwire and Tre Jones applied significant on-ball and off-ball pressure to force multiple turnovers, helping Duke earn its biggest lead of the game at halftime. Still, the Knights left Duke without answers on several plays. Redshirt junior Aubrey Dawkins put up 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting and 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, while B.J. Taylor got to the free throw line 10 times. Dawkins was also left unguarded on his put back attempt at the final buzzer, but was unable to convert, bailing the Blue Devils defense out after a performance that featured some impressive play but was disappointing overall.
3. Lack of offensive versatility nearly sends Duke home early
Apart from Williamson’s 32, no other Duke player carried a significant offensive load. While all three other freshmen scored in double figures, R.J. Barrett and Tre Jones below-average performances by their standards. After opening the tournament with 26, Barrett only put up 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting, while Jones scored 11 on 5-of-15 from the field. Only seven players saw any action and only six of them scored – apart from the four freshmen’s 72 combined points, Javin DeLaurier and Jordan Goldwire added 2 and 3, respectively. The Blue Devils will struggle against higher seeded opponents if the offense must flow through one or two players on the court. Duke will need to figure out how to get more players involved on the offensive end to take some of the load off Williamson and the freshmen and create a more well-rounded attack.
Three Key Stats:
1. 40 percent from deep
Shooting just 30.2 percent from behind the arc heading into Sunday, the Blue Devils hit an impressive 10 threes at high efficiency against the Knights, just enough to grind out the victory. Williamson and Cam Reddish each hit three shots from behind the arc, including a huge Reddish three during the closing stages of the game to pull the Blue Devils within one. Duke shot well from deep despite Jones’s 1-of-8 mark on 3-pointers, indicating that the team could sustain this sort of performance during later stages of the tournament. If the offense can hit threes consistently, the Blue Devils will feel good about their chances of making a championship run.
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2. 32 points
Williamson and Dawkins tied for a game-high 32 points, carrying their respective teams’ offensive loads. Coach K will need to figure out a way of slowing down opposing players when they get hot, as Dawkins was scoring at will regardless of who was guarding him. Duke must also get other players involved offensively to balance the team’s scoring.
3. 58.3 percent
The Blue Devils shot an abysmal 58.3 percent from the free-throw line, an issue that’s given them trouble throughout the season. Had the Knights not missed on various late-game opportunities, including a wide-open alley oop and several looks from point-blank range, it would have cost the Duke the game. The team went 0-for-3 from the line during the last two minutes. Fortunately, Barrett was able to secure the rebound on one of them to take the lead with 14 seconds left. The team will need to step up their free-throw shooting or they will continue to leave free points at the line, potentially costing them games against better opponents.
The Blue Devils will head to Washington D.C. for its Sweet 16 matchup against No. 4 seed Virginia Tech. The Hokies are fresh off a comfortable victory against No. 12 Liberty in the second round and will feel confident about their chances against Duke, having beaten them in February. Duke will look for Williamson to propel the team to victory after he missed the last game against the Hokies due to injury.