No. 5 Duke faces No. 1 Gonzaga Friday night in one of the most highly-anticipated matchups of the season at the Continental Tire Challenge in Las Vegas. With the top-five matchup almost here, the Blue Zone takes a look at a key player from both sides that could be crucial to the game's outcome:
Duke: Mark Williams
With six straight wins to start the season, it is clear that one of Duke's key strengths is its talented frontcourt. Duke welcomed Paolo Banchero and Theo John to Durham this past summer and returned Mark Williams, who has made a significant impact on both ends of the floor since the latter half of his freshman season in 2020-21.
Gonzaga's frontcourt's inside-out game, however, is also well-balanced. Drew Timme is a deadly finisher in the paint, while Chet Holmgren's versatility connects the Bulldogs' capable wings and guards to the team's size. Williams, with his seven-foot frame and long wingspan, is Duke's best option to match up with and defend both Timme and Holmgren inside the paint.
While Williams has shared playing time with John during the past six games, it is his rim-protecting ability that can help the team against Gonzaga. The sophomore center's paint presence could help avoid another pair of dominant performances by Timme and Holmgren, as he can rebound both offensively and defensively. Williams' size is also ideal for setting up screens to create open looks for Duke's wings and guards against Gonzaga's smothering defense.
Gonzaga: Chet Holmgren
Yes, Timme is a nightmare to defend for almost every team in the nation, as the junior forward's impressive footwork, along with his feel for the game, has made him an early favorite to win National Player of the Year. But given Gonzaga’s already well-established paint scoring, Chet Holmgren’s performance could be the one to elevate Gonzaga’s game to a whole new level against the Blue Devils.
With a long seven-foot frame and guard-like speed and handles, Holmgren's ability to leap in and out of the paint to defend every position, combined with his underrated court vision, makes him a great facilitator. He is able to maximize the team's offensive tools while being a dominant defensive force thanks to his elite rim protection. It will be interesting to see how Holmgren plays on the perimeter against Duke, as his high release point makes his jumper difficult to guard.