Two of the nation's best big men collide in Columbia
As a reward for notching its inaugural NCAA Tournament win as a Division I program, the Knights of UCF have... a second-round date with top overall seed Duke.
With a 73-58 win over 8-seed VCU, UCF continued its storybook season in a year that saw the Knights win a program-record 23 regular-season games and beat a pair of ranked opponents. The Rams entered the tournament with a vaunted defense, but 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall (13 points, 18 rebounds) helped propel the Knights to the opening-round win.
Fall and company will now have to contend with the Blue Devils who, after holding just a four-point halftime lead over 16-seed North Dakota State, raced out of the halftime break and coasted to a 23-point win over the Bison. Only three Blue Devils scored in double figures, and just as expected it was the three usual suspects: RJ Barrett led all scorers with 26, followed closely by Zion Williamson’s 25 and Cam Reddish’s 12.
Now, all eyes on this matchup will key in on the battle in the post between Fall and Williamson. Williamson (6-7, 285) gives up 11 inches and 25 pounds to Fall but possesses a complete game on both offense and defense that led to his selection as the ACC’s Player (and Freshman) of the Year.
The statistical matchup extends even further: while Fall led the American Athletic Conference (AAC) and sits 11th in the nation in blocks per game at 2.48, Williamson led the ACC in offensive rebounds per game at 3.48 and — arguably more importantly — his nation-leading 69.3 percent shooting from the field.
It's also worth pointing out that this is a matchup of student vs. mentor, as UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins goes up against his former head coach and boss, Mike Krzyzewski. Dawkins was a two-time, consensus All-American in 1985 and '86 and Naismith Player of the Year as a senior under Krzyzewski before serving as an assistant under him from 1998-2008.
Dawkins left in 2008 to be the head coach at Stanford and after eight years (and two NIT titles) there, he came to UCF in 2016 and has led the Knights to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since '05. Now after beating VCU, Dawkins will face his alma mater, not to mention the legendary Hall of Fame head coach who has had a significant hand in his basketball career.
Second Round: No. 9 UCF Knights (24-8) vs. No. 1 Duke Blue Devils (30-5)
Time: 5:15 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Where: Colonial Life Arena (Columbia, S.C.)
Keys for UCF
Entering the tournament, the Knights' 46.3 field-goal percentage led the AAC, which they combined with an ability to limit baskets on the other end. UCF held opponents to just 39.5 percent from the field, good for 13th in the country and just fractions of a percentage point better than Duke.
The key for the Knights against the Blue Devils sounds simple in theory, though so few teams have been able to execute it sufficiently to secure a win. If they can rely on their interior defense which has been their calling card all season — and force Duke into contested 3-point attempts, where the Blue Devils are, politely, awful (30.2 percent, 13th-worst in all of Division I) — there is an outside chance that the UCF can pull off the shock of the year.
Keys for Duke
For Duke, the scorebook for the win over North Dakota State pretty much summed up the story to the season. As their Williamson-Barrett-Reddish freshman trio goes, so go the Blue Devils. Those three combined for 63 of the 85 points in Friday’s win, with nobody else scoring more than seven points.
It would stand to reason that, against a more formidable opponent (sorry, NDSU faithful) like the Knights, more contributors will need to step up and provide some semblance of scoring threats. We’ve already seen what UCF’s defense can do, and while Duke has only lost five times all year, the three most recent defeats have seen the Blue Devils average a little more than 71 points per game. Sure, Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish are capable of taking over the game at any point, but as the opponents get tougher the Blue Devils’ offense will have to get deeper.
This one will be a classic battle of strengths: UCF can — and loves to — defend, while Duke features some of the best talent in the sport this year. The Williamson-Fall matchup will be one to watch, as we are sure to see some highlight dunks and at least one or two meetings at the rim. Do the Blue Devils march into the Sweet 16 or will UCF light a fire into the madness and dethrone the Tournament’s top overall seed?
Prediction: Duke 79, UCF 66
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.