All eyes on Mark Williams in NCAA final four face-off between Duke and North Carolina

If you told Coach Mike Krzyzewski back in August that his season and career would hinge on the ability of the ACC Defensive Player of the year, Mark Williams, to play defense while staying out of foul trouble, coach K would’ve signed up immediately. Well, that is exactly the case as the Duke Blue Devils get ready to face off against their rivals, the North Carolina Tar Heels Saturday night in the Final Four.

Mark Williams, a 7ft sophomore from Virginia, has had an impressive campaign that has him slated to be drafted first round in the upcoming NBA draft. Averaging 11.3 points and 7.5 boards while also adding 2.9 blocks a game was enough to earn him third-team all ACC to go with that ACC defensive player of the year award. Williams has been a force on the court for Coach K, but it will be the stretch when he’s not on the court that will be the x-factor in Saturday’s game.

Mark Williams is the key to Duke defense

Duke’s last loss came in the ACC championship game against the Hokies of Virginia Tech. The casual viewer might see Mark Williams under an impressive stat line of eight points and three rebounds and figure that he just had a bad game, but in this case, it wasn’t the Hokies’ defense that slowed down Williams. It was his foul trouble that limited his success. Williams only played 19 minutes because of two quick fouls that he picked up in the first half and two more in the second half. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has a history of pulling his players early if they are in foul trouble. The entire landscape of the Duke defense completely changes without Mark Williams on the floor. Without the 7-foot shot-blocker patrolling the paint, teams are not afraid to drive to the hoop and create contact on the way to a layup. Theo John, a 5th-year transfer from Marquette, is the man who steps in when Williams comes out of the game, and although John is an excellent role player for Duke, he’s no Mark Williams.

Attacking Duke’s defense when Mark Williams is on the bench is the key to victory for North Carolina on Saturday night. Their last matchup resulted in a North Carolina victory that spoiled the retirement party that was Coach K’s last home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mark Williams was able to stay out of foul trouble, but North Carolina was still able to take advantage of the minutes when Mark Williams was not on the floor. When Williams went to the bench for his usual breather about halfway through the first half, North Carolina turned to their “small ball” lineup, where they were able to give their star center Armando Bacot a rest as well. This small lineup that North Carolina rolled out consisted of Brady Manek, the sharpshooting transfer at the center position. This is where North Carolina took over. Manek shooting just under 40% for the year from deep is a weapon at the center position. During this stretch against Duke, Manek was standing out behind the three-point line rather than in the paint, which caused the Duke center at the time, Theo John, to evacuate the paint to guard him. With Duke in a man-to-man defense, the paint was completely open, which allowed the talented guards of North Carolina to attack the rim and either kick to an open shooter or go up for the layup. This continued for the length of the pause that Mark Williams got and happened again when Williams went to the bench during the second half.

It may seem obvious, but the key for North Carolina on Saturday night is to attack Mark Williams early and put him in vulnerable situations where he could pick up a few early fouls, which will cause him to come out of the game early. If Mark Williams gets in foul trouble and Theo John is forced to play heavy minutes, it will be the Tar Heels who keep on dancing into the National Championship, but if he’s able to avoid foul trouble, it will be Coach K and the Blue Devils who survive and advance.

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