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X-Factor: Mark Williams' physicality vital as Duke men's basketball looks toward matchup with North Carolina

Sophomore center Mark Williams will be key for Duke against North Carolina's Armando Bacot.
Sophomore center Mark Williams will be key for Duke against North Carolina's Armando Bacot.

With the first of Duke men's basketball's two matchups with North Carolina drawing near, the Blue Zone presents a player from both sides who could make the difference Saturday night in Chapel Hill:

Duke: Mark Williams

Williams is generally a big contributor to Duke’s success. He can block shots. He has good chemistry with the other players on the team and feeds off of players like star freshman Paolo Banchero offensively. He has good control of the ball and can be productive both on defense and when rebounding in lieu of simply swatting shots into the crowd.

A big question Saturday will be how these assets prepare Williams to match up against North Carolina forward Armando Bacot. Duke will rely on Williams to contest Bacot on the boards. Offensive rebounding is already a big hole in the Blue Devils’ play, meaning that Bacot could have plenty of chances to steal second-chance opportunities from the Blue Devils with his 12.5 rebounds per game. 

Williams also gives Duke a good opportunity to get points inside, which will be particularly important as North Carolina forward Leaky Black has been consistently shutting down teams’ strong perimeter shooters. The sophomore center is a great lob target inside for Duke; when he's a threat and attracts the defense's attention, it opens up for other players around the rim.

At 7-foot-1 and with a field goal percentage of about 69%, Williams brings a physicality and height almost always unmatched by other teams. Saturday might be the story of Williams versus Bacot, especially on the glass, but Bacot won’t necessarily be the star of North Carolina's show.

North Carolina: Leaky Black

Black’s 4.4 points per game this season might not be pretty on paper, but his statline doesn’t accurately convey his importance to North Carolina's success. His prowess is better reflected in what he does to other teams’ stat sheets.

Georgia Tech star Michael Devoe went into his team's game against North Carolina averaging 20.5 points per game—second-highest in the ACC—and scored two points, racked up six turnovers and registered no assists against the Tar Heels. John Meeks, College of Charleston’s leading scorer, scored seven points against North Carolina; he had previously averaged 17.7 points per game. 

Offensively, Black isn’t North Carolina's top scorer, but he plays the role of the offensive facilitator so that finishers like Bacot and Caleb Love can shine. He averages 2.4 assists per game and has stepped up to play point guard when Love and R.J. Davis have found themselves in some foul trouble. 

And if you needed more evidence of Black’s role on the team outside of shooting, he recently became just the sixth Tar Heel to record career totals of 400 rebounds, 200 assists, 100 steals and 50 blocks. 

Some of Black’s defensive capabilities come from his physical stature. At 6-foot-8, Black can use his length to get deflections on the ball and prevent opposing players from easily getting around him to drive the basket. But these skills aren’t just a byproduct of height; Black has a certain spatial awareness and understanding of the game that enables him to know where to be at the right time. And when he can get a hand in the passing lane, his facilitating skills help him to quickly and dangerously set up North Carolina's transition offense.

The Tar Heel forward doesn’t average 17-plus points per game or regularly slam down poster dunks like Duke's Banchero. But Saturday against Duke, he’ll try to make sure that Banchero doesn’t, either.

This article is part of The Chronicle's Rivalry Edition. For more content, click here.


Leah Boyd | Editor-in-Chief

Leah Boyd is a Pratt junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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