Top-seeded Duke will take on second-seeded Michigan State Sunday, as the two squads vie for a spot in the Final Four. The Blue Zone looks at a key player for each team:
Duke: Center Marques Bolden
Nobody outside of Duke campus—save for a minority of well-informed national television announcers—knows how to correctly pronounce Marques Bolden’s name. Given the right circumstances and a breakout game, though, that could all change.
That change hasn’t happened quite yet—the junior center scores only 5.4 points per game and has notched double-digit rebounds just twice this season. Michigan State doesn’t play anyone taller than 6-foot-9, and Bolden, towering in comparison at 6-foot-11, should anchor Duke’s interior defense. His potential impact against the Spartans could make the difference between the survival of a championship dream and the entrance of Bolden’s name in television announcers’ collective linguistic database or the anticlimactic exit of Zion Williamson and company.
Before his knee greeted the stanchion against North Carolina March 9, Bolden and 6-foot-10 fellow paint-dweller Javin DeLaurier traded off shifts manning the center of the paint alongside Duke’s four freshman superstars. DeLaurier has illustrated a distinct lack of defensive discipline and scoring prowess in the Blue Devils’ three NCAA tournament games thus far. A resurgent Bolden will then, in all likelihood, receive the lion’s share of the minutes.
While announcers attempt to wrap their tongues around Bolden’s apparently unconquerable first name, Michigan State’s paint presence seems more of a who’s who of “who’s there?” The Spartans’ tallest regular player, 6-foot-9 forward Nick Ward, is only the occasional beneficiary of other players’ playmaking ability. Although Ward has managed to maintain a double-digit scoring average, Bolden should be more than capable of containing Ward’s limited post moves.
On the other end of the floor, Bolden could play the Blue Devils’ analogue to Ward, catching lobs after R.J. Barrett or Tre Jones attracts Spartan defenders away from the key. Michigan State’s eyes will focus on Zion Williamson, but Bolden’s name could catch some eyes—and maybe some announcers' lips—if the Blue Devils strike while the iron is hot.
Michigan State: Forward Xavier Tillman
Point guard Cassius Winston, a talent on par with some of Duke’s own recruits, never fails to impress. The Wooden Award finalist dishes out 7.5 assists and pours in nearly 19 points per game. Winston is deadly from deep, too, burying 40 percent of his long-range attempts.
However, Winston has yet to partake in the Tre Jones Experience. Jones, one of Duke’s two defensive player of the year nominees, envelopes his assignment from end to end, a hellish, immersive, once-in-a-lifetime ordeal. Winston won’t have an easy time of it, and he will likely be forced to resign himself to a lesser version of Cassius Winston.
So Michigan State will turn to Xavier Tillman. The forward is neither the Spartans' most talented scorer nor defender, but Tillman has stepped up to the plate in the tournament when his teammates, Ward and Matt McQuaid, could not. Tillman has totaled 42 points in Michigan State’s three games in the Big Dance, second only to Winston’s 56. Furthermore, he did it while shooting better than 50 percent from the field in each appearance.
On the other end, Tillman leads his team with 1.7 blocks per game, and the Spartans rank fifth in the nation in that category. He also pulled down 87 offensive rebounds this season, the most of anyone of Michigan State’s roster. To limit the athletic Tillman, the Blue Devils should consider assigning him to Zion Williamson. If they do not, the Crazies may have to “want six” for yet another year.
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