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X-Factor: Duke men's basketball will need an inside-out combo to make noise in the ACC Tournament

Mark Williams will have to keep forcing the issue in the paint for Duke to rattle off five wins in five days in Greensboro.
Mark Williams will have to keep forcing the issue in the paint for Duke to rattle off five wins in five days in Greensboro.

As Duke heads into the ACC tournament, it potentially needs to win five games in a row, or at the very least make the championship, to earn a bid into the NCAA Tournament. Clearly, the Blue Devils have some work to do, so someone will need to step up in Greensboro. The Blue Zone gets you ready for the ACC Tournament with a Duke player to look out for and an aspect of the game that the Blue Devils will need to excel at in order to make a run:

C, Mark Williams

Freshman center Mark Williams makes Duke a real dark horse in this tournament, because he has proved to be a difference-maker and is relatively new to the scene. After playing double digit minutes just once in the season’s first nine games, Williams has received over 10 minutes in 11 of Duke’s last 12 games. In fact, Williams has recorded 25 or more minutes in Duke’s last four. What makes Williams so special for the Blue Devils is that he fills a void in their lineup. As a 7-footer, Williams can score on and defend against the league’s biggest players. Without him, sophomore forward Matthew Hurt has had to step up and play the five position, which slows down his own productivity. Thus, Williams' performance is significant in its own right, and it also helps his fellow Blue Devils succeed by allowing them to play in more favorable positions. 

Williams is extremely efficient from the field, shooting a combined 29-for-38 from the field in his last four games. Williams has been shakier from the free-throw line, however, shooting 53.3% from the line this season. With Williams being such a large factor in the paint with rebounds and put-back buckets, he is staged to be heading to the line quite frequently this tournament. As a result, the Virginia native will need to display his more efficient self, such as his 80% free-throw shooting performance this past Saturday against North Carolina—if Duke hopes to make a deep run this week. 

If the Blue Devils wins their first few games, they are slated to play Boston College, Louisville and Florida State in the opening three rounds. Against Louisville, Williams struggled to find the bottom of the ne, scoring just eight points on 4-of-8 from the field in 26 minutes. Florida State, on the other hand, has a plethora of size and experience on their roster, with Balsa Koprivica and RaiQuan Gray at standing at 6-foot-8 and 7-foot-1, respectively. Adding to that is the fact that Koprivica and Gray exceed Williams in terms of experience.

The road to the ACC title game and an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament is long and tough, and the Blue Devils will need their emerging freshman center to spark them as they begin their journey Tuesday against Boston College.

Perimeter Shooting

Put simply, the Blue Devils win when they shoot well from 3-point range. However, the Blue Devils have struggled recently, in part due to inefficiency from beyond the arc. In its four-game winning streak over North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Virginia, and Syracuse, Duke shot over 39% from 3-point range in every game. Just as things were looking bright for the Blue Devils, they turned ice cold from downtown, failing to break 27% from 3-point range in their last three games, all of which were losses. 

Williams’ success in the paint creates open shots on the perimeter, and the Blue Devils will need to knock these down if they hope to make a run in Greensboro. Players like Hurt, DJ Steward, Jeremy Roach and Jaemyn Brakefield will need to knock down open threes. Duke has found itself in positions to win the game in virtually every loss, and if a few shots had gone through the net in those final seconds, the Blue Devils would likely be in a much better place right now. That being said, Duke may find itself in similar crunch-time scenarios in this ACC Tournament, and hitting open threes to close out games may be the difference. 

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