Duke’s bigs giving opponents fits

Mark Williams and Paolo Banchero are dominating the paint for the Blue Devils

Duke center Mark Williams dunks the ball against NC State during Duke's win Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

In the last game of January 2010, Duke senior center Brian Zoubek played a total of two minutes in a loss to Georgetown. The defeat dropped the Blue Devils to 17-4 on the year, 5-2 in the ACC.

Zoubek saw his minutes climb after that scoreless outing, playing 13 in the next game and 24 in the game after that. By Valentine’s Day, he was in the starting lineup.

With the 7-footer in the rotation, Duke went on to win 18 of its next 19 games, sweeping to an ACC Tournament title and cutting down the nets at the Final Four for the Blue Devils’ fourth national championship.

Zoubek had nine double-figure rebound games and three double-doubles down the stretch, averaging more than 11 rebounds per game in the last five games of the NCAA Tournament.

In 2015, Duke returned to Indianapolis for the Final Four and once again cut down the nets, this time for the Blue Devils’ fifth title. Duke’s leading scorer that season was 6-foot-11 center Jahlil Okafor. The freshman averaged 17.3 points to go with 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.

Over the years, Duke has been known as a shooting team, but over the last quarter of Mike Krzyzewski’s Hall of Fame coaching career, the Blue Devils have been at their best when they have a dominant presence in the post to go with the outside sharpshooters.

For all the JJ Redicks, Grayson Allens and Luke Kennards lighting things up from outside, it’s the Shelden Williamses in the post who help the Blue Devils hang banners.

As Duke prepares to send off Coach K, who will be retiring after the season, the Blue Devils once again have the formula to finish off his legendary career with a bang. Yes, as always, Duke has plenty of firepower on the perimeter with AJ Griffin, Wendell Moore and Trevor Keels able to knock down outside shots or drive to the rim.

What potentially could separate this year’s Blue Devils from the pack and push them into the realm of great teams is the damage they can inflict next to the basket.

Sophomore Mark Williams, who played sparingly in his first year before a late-season run of success, has been the team’s starting center all season long and is picking up steam as Duke enters the heart of the ACC season.

Williams feasted on an undersized NC State team last weekend, finishing with 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting. He added 11 rebounds and eight blocked shots — the most by a Blue Devil since Shelden Williams had eight in 2006.

Williams leads the ACC in blocks and has averaged 5.0 in his last four games — all against ACC foes. Among power conference players, Williams is second nationally in blocks per 40 minutes, behind only former Tar Heels big man Walker Kessler. He’s fifth in the NCAA in blocks per game.

As a team, Duke leads the ACC in blocks and is No. 10 nationally.

Williams also has more than half of Duke’s dunks this season, including 15 in the last four games.

“Our big guys were terrific,” Krzyzewski said after the NC State win. “Mark almost had a triple-double. Theo [John] really contributed well in the first half when we got a little lead. We got 29 points, 13 rebounds and nine blocks from our bigs. Let’s get that every game.”

John, a grad transfer from Marquette, hasn’t seen much time but makes the most of his minutes. He hit all four shots against the Wolfpack for 11 points. He also provides an intimidating physical presence in the post.

Duke also has another 6-foot-11 presence inside in freshman Paolo Banchero. He is the leading freshman scorer in the nation at 17.9 points per game and has topped 20 points in each of the last three.

After hitting 8 of 11 from the field for 21 points and eight rebounds against the Wolfpack, Banchero won his fourth ACC Freshman of the Week award of the season.

Banchero is far from the classic post player, however. He is hitting .340 from 3-point range this season and was using a Euro step to score on drives against the Wolfpack the last time out. Despite being nearly 7-feet tall, Banchero can also handle the ball for the Blue Devils.

“Paolo played his normally solid game,” Coach K said after the State game. “At the end, I thought we tried something that we haven’t worked on much with five guards and Paolo being a point center.”

As the Wolfpack learned, Duke will be a tough matchup problem inside for most ACC teams, and that will open things up for the perimeter.

It’s certainly a recipe that the Hall of Fame coach has seen produce in the past.