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Preview: Duke men's basketball set to take on Louisville with major NCAA tournament implications

Freshman center Mark Williams has anchored the Blue Devils' defense over the last few weeks.
Freshman center Mark Williams has anchored the Blue Devils' defense over the last few weeks.

Duke takes on Louisville this Saturday night in its final home game of the year. In most NCAA tournament projections, the Blue Devils are still on the outside looking in, so a fifth straight win is a must for head coach Mike Krzyzewski and company.

Here are some key storylines for the 6 p.m. matchup in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The foul game

Looking at the box score for Duke's Jan. 23 loss in Louisville, one stat jumps out: the difference in free throw attempts. The Blue Devils took just nine free throws in the defeat, making seven, while Louisville finished 18-of-24 from the charity stripe. If you're being generous, some of that disparity can be attributed to "home-court advantage"—there were over 3,000 people in the KFC Yum! Center that afternoon—but that's still a number Duke will have to improve upon if it hopes to come out with a win this time around.

One aspect of that will be keeping the Cardinals off the line, and to do that, the Blue Devils will have to avoid fouling. Luckily for Duke, it's vastly improved in that part of the game over the last few weeks, largely thanks to center Mark Williams. Since Jalen Johnson's opt out, Williams has become a mainstay in the Blue Devils' starting lineup, and he's made an immense impact.  

In games in which the 7-foot center has played 10+ minutes, Duke has committed 14.6 fouls per contest, compared to 18.7 fouls per game otherwise. For context, the former value would rank 16th in the country, while the latter would rank 264th. 

"Mark taking over full time in the middle...he gives us a presence inside, and that's something that we needed," senior point guard Jordan Goldwire said in a Zoom with the media Thursday. "And he's playing great."

Keeping Carlik at bay

Back in that January matchup, one player largely carried the load for Louisville in terms of free throw attempts: point guard Carlik Jones, who finished 11-of-12 from the line against the Blue Devils en route to a game-high 24 points on the day. The graduate transfer from Radford has quietly become one of the top guards in the ACC this season, ranking fourth in the conference in both scoring (17.3 points per game) and assists (4.5 per contest).

"[Carlik] is obviously a great player, a really good player," Goldwire said. "They got another guard, David Johnson, that we're gonna have to contain, too. So it's gonna be a team effort to stop those two guys."

While team defense, specifically with Williams manning the middle, will be essential in keeping the Cardinals' guards out of the paint, Goldwire will more than likely take on the role of guarding Jones on the perimeter. Who can prevail in that matchup will be something to watch Saturday.

Moving the ball

One stat from Duke's win against Syracuse Monday that somehow got overlooked was the Blue Devils' 27 assists. Not only is that their highest mark of the season, it's the most assists they've totaled in a conference game since 2001 and the second-highest assist total in an ACC contest in program history. In comparison, Duke tallied seven assists in its previous matchup with the Cardinals this year, a season-low.

Clearly, the Blue Devils are playing as a far more cohesive unit right now than they were earlier this season.

"When I was a plebe at West Point, I didn't enjoy beast barracks, but I enjoyed what happened as a result of it," Krzyzewski said with a laugh after the Syracuse game in response to whether he's "enjoyed" watching his team mature throughout the season. "I really like my team, though. I'm fooling around a little bit, but somewhat, I'm being truthful. And they've been great kids. They are fond. They're together. My staff is good. We've been really upbeat the whole time, really upbeat. And I think that's the thing that's paid dividends—they know we're all together, no matter what."

The bubble

Each remaining game on Duke's schedule has major implications on the team's chances at securing an NCAA tournament bid. The Blue Devils likely need to finish at least 2-1 over their final three regular-season games to remain in play for March Madness, and then depending on their seed add at least one more victory in the ACC tournament.

This Saturday's contest is especially important. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Louisville as one of the final eight teams making the tournament in his latest bracket, with the Blue Devils sitting as one of the final eight teams left out. Furthermore, Duke sits tied with the Cardinals (as well as Clemson and North Carolina) for fourth place in the ACC standings and a coveted double-bye in the ACC tournament.

Obviously, there remain a lot of different possibilities for what can happen over the next few weeks, with a multitude of different ways Duke can continue its NCAA tournament streak to 25 seasons. But a win Saturday would certainly certainly be a step in the right direction, while a loss could be devastating.

"To play in the tournament, it'll mean everything," Goldwire said. "That's what you grow up watching. I obviously had a little taste of it, going to the Elite Eight twice.... If we don't make [the NCAA tournament], it's devastating. It's terrible—terrible feeling to have, if we don't make it."


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