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X-Factor: Duke bigs, Kentucky guards look to be deciding factors in season-opener

Sophomore Mark Williams averaged 18.5 points on 77.5% shooting in the four games to close out last season.
Sophomore Mark Williams averaged 18.5 points on 77.5% shooting in the four games to close out last season.

Duke men's basketball takes the floor for the first time this season in a primetime matchup with Kentucky Tuesday in New York. Each team has a lot to prove after disappointing seasons, so here we have an X-factor for each team that can be the spark to lead their squad to victory in the season-opening battle of the blue-bloods:

Duke: Mark Williams

Despite the Blue Devils’ middling, mediocre campaign last time out, the performance of sophomore center Mark Williams in the season’s final few games proved a rare bright spot. Across the last 14 games of the 2020-21 season, Williams led the team in rebounds, field goal percentage and blocked shots and ranked fifth in points scored. In the exhibition game against Winston-Salem State, Williams posted an impressive 14 points en route to Duke’s blowout victory. Ask any Duke basketball fan who their favorite player to watch in the latter half of last season was, and chances are they’ll say Mark Williams—his 7-foot stature, physicality and immense presence around the rim provided a size and strength Duke was otherwise lacking and bodes well coming into Tuesday’s showdown and this season as a whole.

Much of the attention thus far has, justifiably, been on freshman sensation Paolo Banchero and the storybook ending to head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s illustrious coaching career, but Williams has the potential to be an X-factor for Duke all season. Against Kentucky, a perennial heavyweight with one of the game’s best coaches in John Calipari, the Blue Devils will need reliability just as much as they need flair and individual brilliance. If last season is any indication, Williams can be the reliable Robin to the blockbuster Batman Banchero—available for the put-back, rebound, alley-oop and occasional defensive swat when needed. Especially considering the fact that many of Kentucky’s points last year came from inside, his size and defensive capabilities will be just as important as offensive firepower if Duke hopes to leave Madison Square Garden with a win. As we saw in February and throughout the ACC tournament, if Williams has a good game, so do the Blue Devils. Tuesday is yet another chance for that to remain true.

Kentucky: Tyty Washington Jr.

Although the Wildcats also had a disappointing 2020-21 campaign, Kentucky is entering this season with high hopes, having snagged multiple high-profile transfers like Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler, Davidson’s Kellan Grady and West Virginia’s Oscar Tshiebwe in addition to exciting recruits like Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins. The player I’m backing as an X-factor in New York is freshman point guard Tyty Washington Jr., as the Phoenix, Ariz., native provides a playmaking and deep-scoring threat that will be key in breaking down Duke’s tall, physical and talented defense. In his senior high school season, Washington posted 24.0 points per game, 7.0 assists per game and 6.0 rebounds per game in addition to his 41% 3-point percentage and 88% free throw percentage.

Washington provides a technical threat that may be hard for the Blue Devils to deal with on the defensive end and has proven able to convert from distance. Kentucky’s biggest flaw last year was its reliance on close points and Washington can be that solution, not only in this game but throughout the year. Point guards are often the linchpins of college teams for a reason, and a commanding performance from Washington could certify him as such for Kentucky with his creativity and deep-scoring tendencies. If Duke is going to rely on the likes of Banchero and Williams for big-man presence in defense, a talented shooter like Washington is an easy-out and could prove the difference between these blue-blood titans of college basketball.

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