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X-Factor: Resurgent Roach looks to keep the fire burning in Duke men's basketball's Elite 8 matchup with Arkansas

<p>Jeremy Roach has averaged 14 points on 55.2% shooting during the tournament.</p>

Jeremy Roach has averaged 14 points on 55.2% shooting during the tournament.

Another high-stakes matchup awaits No. 2-seed Duke in No. 4-seed Arkansas in the Elite Eight for a berth in the all-coveted Final Four in New Orleans next weekend. Here’s a player for each team that can be the difference in getting there:

Duke: Jeremy Roach

This feels obvious.

With the Blue Devils trailing late in the second frame to a Texas Tech squad who had out-muscled, out-worked and heretofore out-performed them, Duke needed a hero, and fast. Staring a Sweet 16 strikeout square in the face, Roach stepped up to the plate and delivered. While he didn’t put up the ridiculous scoring numbers of freshman teammate Paolo Banchero or the immense effort on the glass of Mark Williams, the sophomore point guard ran the floor for the last few minutes and, not superfluously, turned the game from a hard-fought disappointment into a resilient triumph.

With 3:35 to go, Roach powered to the rim and finished a difficult layup to give his side the lead—a lead it wouldn’t surrender for the rest of the game—and followed it up with a couple of pull-up jumpers inside 2:16. Banchero did Banchero things (and even some extra with his 3-of-4 clip from deep) to steal the statistical show, but Roach’s drives into traffic with his team’s future on the line were what brought these Blue Devils to their 17th Elite Eight under Krzyzewski. Fifteen points, four rebounds and five assists are impressive numbers in and of themselves, but the fact that they primarily came in the final minutes to snatch a win from the jaws of defeat makes them monumental.

In the post-game presser, Banchero was quick to dismiss that Duke players have a “clutch gene” that enables them to close out tough contests and go a perfect 8-for-8 on their final set of shots. Against the assertion of his teammate, however, it seems a pretty safe bet to say Roach has that clutch gene. A performance like that at a time like that doesn’t come out of nowhere, and if he stays on fire against the Razorbacks, Krzyzewski’s final chapter may just have a few more pages to turn.

Arkansas: JD Notae

There were a lot of reasons Arkansas was able to forcibly wake Gonzaga from its dream of a first national title, but one of the biggest was an absolutely monstrous showing from senior JD Notae. The Razorback star dropped 21 points, pulled down six boards and had six dishes in that historic day to give Arkansas its first-ever win against a No. 1-seed in March and become the premier team to knock off the top seed in both the regular and postseason.

If Arkansas and its coach comprise the famed “Muss Bus,” Notae is the engine that makes it go. The Jacksonville State transfer has averaged 18.5 points per game this year and has shone in blockbuster matchups, including 28 points against then-No. 1 Auburn, 30 points against then-No. 6 Kentucky and 20 points against then-No. 16 Tennessee. In three games against three teams billed to contend for the national title, Notae amassed 78 points and firmly sent each packing.

The win against Gonzaga was unprecedented and enthralling and involved career games for a smorgasbord of head coach Eric Musselman’s Hogs. Notae was the headline event Thursday, outperforming Drew Timme and mismatching Chet Holmgren in the paint with his surging drives. Notae didn’t shoot particularly well from the floor or from three—31.0% and 16.7%, respectively–but made up for it with defensive tenacity (including a pair of blocks). Arkansas played impeccably on the other side of the ball all evening, drawing 17 fouls and grabbing six steals. Notae drew three fouls and accounted for half of those steals, hounding the Bulldog offense all night and, because of it, sending his team to a second consecutive Elite Eight and the 11th in program history.

Notae is the catalyst for a team playing perhaps its most consistent basketball of the season. He’s felled Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn and Gonzaga this season, and has the potential to add Duke to that illustrious list if he plays with the same vigor.


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