Duke Basketball: Mike Krzyzewski Praises Underrated Mark Williams as ‘Difference-Maker’ in Elite Eight Win

Duke men’s basketball had already shown it could overcome an elite defense in their Sweet 16 victory over the Texas Tech Red Raiders. But as head coach Mike Krzyzewski noted, the Blue Devils needed their own defensive stopper to defeat the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Elite Eight and advance to the Final Four of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Blue Devils center Mark Williams might not be the team’s most highly-rated NBA draft prospect. But he’s been a vital two-way cog during Duke’s run to the Final Four.

After a 78-69 victory over Arkansas, Coach K sang Williams’ praises and alluded to him being an X-factor. Indeed, the versatile big man will need to continue his good form if the Blue Devils hope to send Krzyzewski into the sunset with his sixth national title.

Duke men’s basketball advanced to the Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Arkansas

The Blue Devils entered March Madness as one of the younger and more inconsistent title contenders in the field. However, Duke has played like an experienced team built to cut down the nets in New Orleans.

Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch showed as much in an Elite Eight win over the Razorbacks.

Arkansas made things difficult on Duke at the start of the contest. Their speed and shiftiness caused problems on both ends, as Razorbacks defenders routinely created deflections and recovered to contest jumpers while ball-handlers made plays in the lane. However, the Blue Devils showed tremendous fight.

Duke worked the offensive glass early and eventually adjusted Arkansas’ scheme. The Blue Devils ran a lot of high pick-and-roll on the wings and had success penetrating, with Mark Williams trailing and making himself available as a roll man.

Duke went on a 6-0 run to close the first half and take a 12-point lead. The Razorbacks fought back in the final 20 minutes, but the Blue Devils took every punch and responded with more of their own. AJ Griffin hit a pair of late three-pointers that gave Duke the momentum for good.

Although the guards created a lot of offense on dribble drives, Coach K acknowledged that Williams set the tone on both ends.

Mike Krzyzewski gave massive praise to Mark Williams

Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (R) high-fives center Mark Williams during an NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament win over the Michigan State Spartans
Mark Williams #15 high-fives Mike Krzyzewski near the end of an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament game against the Michigan State Spartans at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on March 20, 2022 | Lance King/Getty Images

The Blue Devils dominated on the perimeter throughout the 2021-22 season. They ranked 34th in the country in three-point shooting and relied on Paolo Banchero and Wendell Moore Jr. to create off the bounce.

Early in Saturday’s win over the Razorbacks, however, Duke asserted its will inside.

The Blue Devils did not attempt a single three-pointer until the 7:34 mark in the first half. All of their first 16 points came in the paint. Duke tried to establish an edge inside. Krzyzewski said (h/t The Chronicle) it began with Williams.

“I mean, all these guys played well, but Mark really was the difference-maker for us today.”

–Mike Krzyzewski on Mark Williams’ impact in Elite Eight victory

Williams did everything for the Blue Devils, on both ends.

The likely first-round pick made himself available as a roll man, filling the space when Duke’s guards got cut off on drives and finishing in various fashions around the rim. Indeed, Williams made all six of his field-goal attempts.

As he has so often, Williams also gave the Blue Devils an incredible defensive effort. He showed on ball screens, preventing Razorbacks guards from getting clean perimeter looks while also having the agility to return to his original assignment. Similarly, Williams helped deny straight-line drives, but not too much that he could not get out to the perimeter to prevent Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams from firing open triples.

Williams swarmed the ball. He finished the game with three blocked shots and had numerous more contests. The ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year proved the ultimate disruptor for an Arkansas team that couldn’t find an answer.

Now, the question becomes: Can Williams and the Blue Devils write a storybook ending in Coach K’s final chapter?

More history in store for Duke basketball

With Saturday’s win, Mike Krzyzewski passed legendary UCLA head coach John Wooden for the most Final Four appearances (13) in NCAA men’s basketball history.

More history awaits Coach K and Duke.

Should North Carolina defeat Saint Peter’s in the East Regional final, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will go toe to toe in their first-ever NCAA Tournament showdown. And if the Peacocks win, well, they’ll have defied conventional wisdom to the nth degree, though they expect it of themselves. Either way, Duke has a colossal Final Four matchup on the horizon.

The Blue Devils need the sum of their parts to win another national title. Banchero and Griffin figure to keep leading the way with their shot-creation on the perimeter. Point guard Jeremy Roach has been a boon with his gains as a slasher and pull-up threat.

Ultimately, though, Williams may hold the keys to whether Duke can raise another banner to the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Stats courtesy of CBB Reference.

RELATED: March Madness: 3 Keys to Historic Elite Eight Matchup Between St. Peter’s and UNC