With the Blue Devils set to begin their NCAA tournament against Cal State Fullerton in Greenville, S.C., Friday evening, the Blue Zone brings you the key players to watch for in this 2-versus-15 first round matchup.
Duke: Paolo Banchero
In a tournament with high stakes like this one, the No. 2-seed Blue Devils will look to star forward Paolo Banchero to dominate and lead the team to victory, giving some much-needed momentum as they embark for the tournament. The freshman out of Seattle has proven his star potential over the season, averaging 17.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.1 assists a game, earning him a multitude of awards, including ACC Rookie of the Year. Banchero’s presence can certainly be felt on the court without having to look at his accolades, though—6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, the forward uses his robust frame to his advantage, playing physically and dominating the paint. Banchero is stellar from midrange and can dominate down low.
Although the Blue Devils were far from their best against Virginia Tech at the ACC tournament, Banchero played a decent game. He shot more accurately from within the arc than his season average, connecting on 80% of his attempts to score 20 points in a game for the thirteenth time this season. However, the forward’s free throw accuracy was well below his 72.9% season average, as Banchero shot 57.1% from the line, which proved detrimental to the Blue Devils as they struggled to close in on a significant Hokies lead late in the ACC championship. Within the 10-minute mark and down by seven, Duke made a lowly 41.7% of its free throws, connecting on 5 of 12 and missing a disappointing three in a row as it looked to turn the tides in its favor. For the Blue Devils to advance into round two of the NCAA tournament, they will need Banchero to dominate the paint and be spotless from the line—in tournament games, these two factors can mean all the difference between a win and a loss, so the opener against the 15 seed may be an opportunity to prove his prowess.
Cal State Fullerton: EJ Anosike
A transfer out of Sacred Heart via a quick stop at Tennessee, forward EJ Anosike has been a true difference maker for the Titans. Named Big West’s Newcomer of the Year, Anosike has averaged a solid 16.5 points and 8.3 rebounds, shooting 51.8% from the field. The 6-foot-7, 236 pound forward embraces his impressive frame to play with gritty physicality, creating space and grabbing rebounds. His physicality often sets the tone for the rest of the team, leading them to thrilling wins.
Anosike’s dominance was on full display throughout the Titans’ title game against Long Beach State last weekend—the forward led his team both in points and rebounds, with 22 and eight respectively, shooting a perfect from the field. His explosiveness was evident as well, putting on an electrifying display midway through the second half— as the Titans were down 14 points, Anosike scored nine and combined with Harris’ five to lead his team on a 14-2 run that would give them an eight point lead they would never relinquish. Among his scores was a monster put-back dunk that put the Titans up 64-59 with five minutes left, changing the momentum of the game and leading them to their first NCAA tournament since 2018. Explosive and a game-changer, the Blue Devils must watch out for Anosike and minimize his impact on the game for the hungry Titans.
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