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X-Factor: Mark Williams' prowess in the paint can help Duke men's basketball combat Texas Tech's strong defense

Williams averages 2.9 blocks per game, just 0.6 blocks fewer than the Red Raiders' team average of 3.5 blocks per game.
Williams averages 2.9 blocks per game, just 0.6 blocks fewer than the Red Raiders' team average of 3.5 blocks per game.

Following a hectic first weekend of March Madness and a tense game against Michigan State, No. 2-seed Duke returns Thursday to face No. 3-seed Texas Tech in San Francisco, Calif. Here’s a player from both teams that can be the difference:

Duke: Mark Williams

What a weekend it was for the Blue Devil big man.

30 points, 15 boards and 10 blocks over the course of two games is a remarkable tally and one indicative of just how far the sophomore has come this season. For a player that, for large stretches, was the forgotten man in an all-star rotation, Williams has really come into his own when it counts and has given his team the size and defensive anchor it desperately needed after last year’s small-ball struggles. The Virginia Beach, Va., native has averaged a ridiculous 7.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game this season, culminating in ACC Defensive Player of the Year recognition and an unchallenged berth in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s go-to lineup.

More than that, Williams is an X-factor in this game because his strengths are otherwise his team’s vulnerabilities. He averages under a block fewer than Texas Tech gets every game and commands the defensive glass alongside Paolo Banchero, something that will be key to Duke’s hopes of counteracting a Red Raiders’ defense that ranks seventh nationally. He’s not the most physical player and doesn’t provide the same out-muscling capability Theo John and Banchero do, but his immense height, reach and steady hands make him an invaluable asset for this Blue Devil squad.

Duke has shooters and Duke has playmakers. What it didn’t have before Williams’ emergence was a defensive lockpiece and consistent threat around the rim. Now that it does and now that he’s playing in the dominant fashion he is, it finally seems like the Blue Devils have all bases covered. Naturally, an improved clip from three would help as would perimeter defense, but Williams is the piece this jigsaw has needed for a while. If he maintains the consistency and excellence he’s displayed in the first two games of the tournament, he can very probably and easily be the big-man, board-dominating difference against a Texas Tech team looking to bully and out-hustle the Blue Devils. Duke has, at last, found its sentinel.

Texas Tech: Kevin Obanor

Part of this feels nostalgic given the most Cinderella of Cinderella runs he partook in with Oral Roberts last season, but Kevin Obanor is a baller. After transferring from the Tulsa, Okla., outfit, Obanor hit the ground running in Lubbock, Texas, averaging 10.5 points in his first eight games before putting up 36 total in his two run-ins with No. 1-seed Baylor and 17 points each in games against Kansas and Texas during Big-12 play. Along the way, he’s amassed 195 rebounds–137 on the defensive glass–for 5.4 per game, as he helped his team to its third Sweet 16 appearance in four years and a third-place finish in the Big 12.

In many ways, Obanor is emblematic of Texas Tech as a whole. He’s consistent, great on defense and shows up in big games. He hounds opponents with his size and 6-foot-8, 235-pound build, all while shooting 46.9% from the floor. With Obanor on the court, the Red Raiders swept the regular season slate against Texas and Baylor–both teams that were ranked throughout the year–and split with No. 1-seed Kansas, winning the first outing by eight and losing the second only in double overtime. Obanor hit double-digit points in four of those games and snagged a season-high 23 against the Bears, all while leading the team in total rebounds by 41.

Scarily, he’s better in the tournament than he was in the regular season. Texas Tech's Sunday win against Notre Dame made it five double-doubles on the season for the senior, whose heroics in 2021 gave Oral Roberts a historic victory against Ohio State and the program’s first Sweet 16 berth since 1974. Obanor is a big-time player who orchestrates big moments for his teams. In a matchup against a Blue Devil squad burdened with perhaps the most pressure it will ever have, Thursday is sure to be an important day for both sides. Obanor has the tools–and the experience–to make it one the Red Raiders remember.


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