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Duke vs. UNC preview: Frontcourt

Mark Williams leads the ACC in blocks and is one half of Duke's formidable frontcourt duo.
Mark Williams leads the ACC in blocks and is one half of Duke's formidable frontcourt duo.

With the first of this year's Tobacco Road matchups between Duke and North Carolina drawing near, the Blue Zone is here to preview each positional battle ahead of Saturday night's tipoff. Previously, we took a look at the backcourt. Now, we preview both teams' frontcourt: 

Duke’s frontcourt this season can be summed up in one word: dominant. The Mark Williams-Paolo Banchero duo has been a force to be reckoned with, whether it be grabbing defensive rebounds or assisting an alley-oop. With a combined 10 double-doubles on the season, their on-court chemistry and individual physicality has proven to be a nightmare for opposing big men. 

Williams is having the breakout season that critics were anticipating. He is averaging 10.0 points and just over seven rebounds a game. He already has five double-doubles with more surely to come. The star defender was named a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, and one of the biggest reasons he is there is his ability to disrupt shots. 

In just 21 games, Williams has more than doubled his total block count from last season. Williams has four games this season with six or more blocks, including his incredible eight-block performance against N.C. State. While his average of over three blocks per game leads the ACC, it is not enough to describe Williams' effect on opposing offenses' paint play. His 7-foot-1 stature gives him a height advantage over most everyone, and Williams milks that for all its worth. 

His offensive capabilities are not to be overshadowed. Williams is efficient in the paint with a field goal percentage of about 69%, and he has 12 double-digit games, including a recent five-game streak, and shows no sign of slowing down. 

His partner in the paint, Banchero, has been putting on a show. The six-time ACC Freshman of the Week has put up double digits in every game this season, sometimes in just a half. He has proven that he can take over games by instantly dialing up his own intensity, as he did against Virginia Tech with 17 second-half points. Banchero also shows up when it matters, as demonstrated by his 20-point first half in the victory over then-No. 1 Gonzaga. That strong start set the tone for Duke, and when Banchero was on the sideline for much of the second half with cramping, the stage had been set for teammates Wendell Moore Jr. and Williams to step in and continue what Banchero had started. 

The stat sheet reflects Banchero’s gameplay. He is averaging 17.8 points a game, ranked sixth in the ACC. He ranks fifth in rebounding with more than eight per game. Like Williams, he also has five double-doubles, including his career-high 15-rebound performance against Louisville. Rebounding has become a much more central aspect of his game in recent weeks; he has double-digit rebounds in three of his past four games. 

Banchero has embraced The Brotherhood with open arms, and the rivalry is sure to be no different. In ACC play this season, Banchero has gone over 20 points in six of Duke's 10 games. Four of his double-doubles have come in that span. This Tobacco Road Rivalry matchup is the epitome of a big game, and Banchero will come to play. 

North Carolina has a dynamic duo of their own. With the departure of Garrison Brooks to the transfer portal over the offseason, the Tar Heels brought in Brady Manek in his fifth year from the Sooners to pair with Armando Bacot. Manek is a tough, 6-foot-9 forward with a sneaky ability to drain threes. Against N.C. State, Manek made 5-of-7 attempts from the arc for his best percentage on the season. He has only made more once, when he went 6-of-10 in their loss to Tennessee. 

When sharing the court with Bacot, it is easy for anyone else’s rebounding skills and stats to be forgotten. However, Manek is fully capable of grabbing plenty boards of his own. He is averaging 5.6 rebounds a game, and has a double-double due to his 11-point, 11-rebound performance against Appalachian State. Manek is a threat anywhere on the court, especially when paired with Bacot.  

The king of the boards is without a doubt Bacot, though. His 12.1 rebounds a game lead the ACC by three and place him third in the nation. He has 12 straight games with double-digit rebounds and a whopping 16 double-doubles. Against Virginia, Bacot’s 22 rebounds were almost two-thirds of his team’s total and equal to all of the Cavaliers' starters combined. If a shot has gone up, Bacot is already there for the rebound. 

On offense, Bacot makes his presence known. He averages over 16 points per game and has put up seven 20-point showings, including back-to-back 29-point games in ACC victories over Virginia and Georgia Tech. He shot over 60% from the field in both games, using his size and rebounding prowess to create second-chance points and high-efficiency shots. 

The two-time ACC Player of the Week knows, and loves to play, the Blue Devils. In the second rivalry matchup last season, Bacot scored 18 and was North Carolina’s defensive player of the game. He was instrumental in building the Tar Heel’s early lead, scoring nine of their first 26. Against this year’s Duke team that has struggled with offensive rebounding, Bacot is sure to make his mark in the post and attempt to exploit one of the Blue Devils' biggest weaknesses. 

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest here.


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