I'm not going to lie, I was worried.
Duke's season narrowly stayed alive Sunday thanks to a fortuitous roll on Aubrey Dawkins' last-second putback, which would have sent the heavily favored Blue Devils back to Durham much earlier than expected.
Yet, I don't think Central Florida's near upset of Duke proves anything about the Blue Devils' national championship prospects.
While Tacko Fall's dunks with his feet still scraping the floor are incredible to watch, it was his defensive prowess that propelled the Knights in their second round contest. UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins utilized his uniquely skilled center brilliantly, and Fall had a game-high +15 plus/minus.
For much of the second half, Dawkins decided to anchor Fall by the hoop attempting to take away what Duke does best—scoring inside. With the behemoth center staying in the paint, the Blue Devils were forced to the perimeter, which is less than ideal for a group that connects on just 30.7 percent of its 3-point attempts. Fall guarded Jordan Goldwire and Tre Jones for much of the game—in name—but he remained in the paint exclusively, daring the pair of guards to shoot. Goldwire and Jones chucked up 11 shots beyond the arc—a majority of which were wide open—and connected on just two of their looks.
Even though Dawkins' game plan was effective in slowing down Duke, it's not an adequate blueprint to topple the Blue Devils.
Simply put, there are no other Tacko Falls left in the NCAA tournament field.
I'll admit that I'm not up-to-date on every remaining player's last reading at the physical, but there is not a single potential Duke opponent that will match Fall's imposing 7-foot-6, 310-pound frame. Fall made Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden—both normally solid on the boards and defensively—look like elementary schoolers trying to defend against a grown adult.
In Duke's Sweet 16 matchup with Virginia Tech, the Hokies will certainly try to emulate the Knights' success at keeping the Blue Devils out of the paint. But with nobody on its roster larger than Kerry Blackshear Jr., who checks in at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Virginia Tech does not possess the manpower to bully Duke inside.
With Fall out of the picture, the Blue Devils have the most freakish player in the NCAA tournament: Zion Williamson. Against Fall, Williamson seemed uncomfortable driving to the hoop, yet still put up 32 points. Duke's recently crowned National Freshman of the Year has not looked that way all season. I would put my money on Williamson dominating the paint once again, given that the Hokies and any other future opponents do not have a 7-foot-6 defensive stalwart suddenly decide to walk onto their squad.
Even though UCF played a nearly perfect game against the Blue Devils, no team still alive in the NCAA Tournament is likely to replicate this success. I expect Duke to be the bully in the paint, not the bullied.
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