COLUMBIA, S.C.—Duke boasts a one-of-a-kind athlete in Zion Williamson, but Sunday evening, the superstar freshman won't be the most unique presence on the court.
No. 8 seed Central Florida, led by former Blue Devil standout and associate head coach Johnny Dawkins, will look to upend top-seeded Duke at Colonial Life Arena and advance to the East Regional in Washington next weekend. However, Dawkins’ Blue Devil ties will not be the biggest storyline of the matchup—rather, that title will belong to the battle between Williamson and Knight center Tacko Fall.
At 7-foot-6, 310 pounds, Fall is the tallest player in Division I college basketball and is among the 40 largest living humans on Earth.
“It’s very exciting. You got a guy who’s 7-foot-6. You got a guy who’s a freak athlete, very talented. But at the end of the day, it’s a ballgame,” Fall said. “It’s basketball. We can’t make it bigger than what it really is. I don’t want it to be like a freak show between Zion and I. It’s bigger than that. It’s UCF versus Duke.”
Duke has faced similar size before with a pair of matchups against Florida State’s Christ Koumadje—who measures in at 7-foot-4—but Fall is an even more dominant presence on the interior. The Dakar, Senegal native averages 11.0 points per contest on an American Athletic Conference-best 75.4 percent conversion rate from the field. Fall also finished fourth in the AAC in rebounding at 7.7 per game and ranks ninth in the nation with 2.6 blocks per contest.
“I think it's helped playing against Koumadje, but Fall is stronger, bigger and they go to him more, and he really just takes up the paint,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He does a great job.”
Fall’s interior presence could cause trouble for a Blue Devil offense that thrives on the interior and struggles from the perimeter. Duke (30-5) hovered around the 3-point line for much of the first half against North Dakota State and had minimal success, making just 2-of-9 attempts as the Blue Devils led the 16th-seeded Bison by just four at the break.
Slow starts are nothing unusual for a Duke team that, more often than not, has come out of the gates triple-happy. In last week’s ACC tournament, the Blue Devils took their time to get into the rhythm of the game, falling into first-half holes of 13 and eight, respectively, against North Carolina and Florida State.
“I think teams really take it to us at the beginning, and we really can't let that happen,” freshman R.J. Barrett said. “We actually have to throw the first punch and keep throwing punches throughout the game. We've just got to come out more focused.”
Poor 3-point shooting has plagued Duke throughout the season. The Blue Devils rank just 333rd out of 353 Division I programs at 30.5 percent, and it remains to be seen whether or not Williamson’s efficiency and strength on the interior is enough to overcome the perimeter peril.
The Blue Devils could use a boost from freshman Cam Reddish, who has been a relative non-factor since Williamson’s return against Syracuse March 14. Reddish has averaged a mere 9.0 points per contest and made just 5-of-19 triples during that span.
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Despite being heralded as a sharpshooter and potent scoring threat, the Norristown, Pa., native has converted just 32.7 percent of his attempts beyond the arc this season and recently has struggled to stay in games due to turnovers and foul woes.
With Fall occasionally opting to stay back on defense rather than rush the basket for UCF (24-8) in Friday’s win against Virginia Commonwealth, Duke will likely need to convert from downtown or get out in transition if it wants to advance to the tournament’s second weekend.
“He is a very unique player, and I got a lot of respect for him because for him to be that size and be able to move the way he does and have as much skill as he does, he's a great player,” Williamson said. “We're just going to have to come together as a team and figure out what we're going to do to try to stop him.”