Duke's matchup against Syracuse will be crucial as the Blue Devils continue to make a late case for the NCAA tournament. The Blue Zone brings you a player from each team that could be the difference for each side.
Jaemyn Brakefield, F, Duke
With Virginia leading by a point late in Duke’s 66-65 victory over the Cavaliers on Saturday, Blue Devil forward Jaemyn Brakefield switched onto the smaller, faster Kihei Clark at the top of the key. Clark cut toward the rim, where a trailing Brakefield pinned his layup against the backboard to set up what would prove to be his own game-winning layup on the ensuing possession.
It was a breakout performance for the former four-star recruit, who played a career-high 29 minutes while contributing 11 points and four blocks to the win. Beyond his role in the game’s final sequence, Brakefield displayed the ability to score in bursts with a quick seven-point first half run and an impressive level of defensive versatility, a quality extremely valuable to Duke’s style of play this season.
Although Mark Williams received the start at center for the Blue Devils against the Cavaliers, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski turned to Brakefield as an early alternative against Virginia’s vaunted packline defense. With the Blue Devils set to host Syracuse and head coach Jim Boeheim’s famed zone defense Monday night, it is entirely feasible that Brakefield sees big minutes again alongside Wendell Moore Jr. and Matthew Hurt in the frontcourt. And after his heroics in Cameron Indoor Stadium this weekend, the Blue Devil faithful should be eager to see more.
Marek Dolezaj, F, Syracuse
Earlier this week, Boeheim praised the Slovakian senior forward Dolezaj as Syracuse’s “most valuable player” and one would be hard pressed to find evidence to the contrary. The veteran big man has stepped up this season by leading the team in minutes per game at 36.2 while averaging career highs in points, assists and free-throw percentage. Asked to play out of position this year at center, Dolezaj has done an admirable job on the defensive end despite a wiry frame that allows opponents to bully him inside with the right personnel.
Most recently, Dolezaj helped to complete an impressive comeback win over Notre Dame with totals of 18 points, six rebounds and four assists. Having now scored in double digits in four out of his last five games, his matchup in the paint with the Blue Devils is extremely intriguing. Duke has struggled to contain centers due to its own lack of size, but Hurt has been able to expose these players from the midrange and on the perimeter. Dolezaj, however, is lengthy and agile enough to make life tough for Duke’s leading scorer, and has enough talent to hurt the Blue Devils offensively, even posting a career high 22 points in last season’s clash.
Playing some of the best basketball of his long Syracuse career, Dolezaj’s play on both ends could make or break the Orange against a suddenly formidable opponent in the Blue Devils.
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