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X-Factor: Mark Williams' defense, paint presence will be crucial for Duke men's basketball against Virginia Tech

Mark Williams has largely lived up to lofty expectations early on.
Mark Williams has largely lived up to lofty expectations early on.

Having wrapped up the nonconference portion of its schedule, Duke men's basketball is set to kick off its ACC slate Wednesday with a home matchup against Virginia Tech. Before then, the Blue Zone has you covered with a player from both sides that could be his team's key to victory: 

Duke: Mark Williams

There were high expectations for Mark Williams entering this season, and the seven-foot center has mostly lived up to the hype, quickly becoming the dominant force in the paint that Duke has needed. It seems he can always be counted on for a blocked shot or to be the finisher of an alley-oop. 

Williams' height is a crucial aspect of his success. Against the Hokies, he will be facing a lineup whose tallest starter is 6-foot-9. That player, however, is redshirt senior forward Keve Aluma, Virginia Tech’s leading scorer and top player. Aluma received the second-most votes for Preseason ACC Player of the Year, behind only Duke's own Paolo Banchero. While Aluma hasn’t reached his ceiling quite yet this season, he still has the potential to take over a game. 

Against Gonzaga, when Williams faced the Bulldogs' star frontcourt of Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren in his first major test, the center stepped up with 17 points, nine rebounds and a career-high six blocks. His defense was game-altering—while he blocked a whopping six shots, he affected numerous others, too. The sophomore center's five defensive rebounds and four offensive rebounds show just how effective he was using his size and strength. If Williams plays at the level he did against Gonzaga, Aluma will face quite the challenge, and the Hokies lose their biggest weapon. 

Virginia Tech: Hunter Cattoor

Hunter Cattoor is the Hokies' best shooter. While he has had a few off games, the junior guard is shooting over 44% from the arc and has two games with five made three-pointers. He is on a hot streak, sinking multiple triples in seven of his last eight games and connecting on all five of his 3-point shots in Virginia Tech's most recent matchup against St. Bonaventure. Cattoor is coming off of a career-high 21-point performance and will no doubt be hungry to keep up his hot shooting against the Blue Devils. 

Duke has given up its fair share of 3-point shots this season, highlighted by The Citadel sinking 18 threes in a November matchup and setting the record for most 3-pointers by an opponent at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In Duke's loss to Ohio State, its first and only loss of the season, the Buckeyes made eight shots from long range, shooting an efficient 40% from distance. An effective 3-point attack by Cattoor and the Hokies would make for a long night for the Blue Devils. 

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