- Defending Zion Williamson is college basketball’s toughest task—preparing for him on short notice is near-impossible. Despite Tacko Fall’s bravado, UCF is well-aware of the challenge ahead.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Leading up to Friday night’s 85-62 loss to Duke, North Dakota State head coach David Richman found a clip of Zion Williamson getting a steal and dunking in transition to show his team. He paused the clip, rewound it, showed it again and asked his team, “How many points is that worth?”
In November, Army prepped to play Duke in the second game of the season, five days after the Blue Devils wrecked Kentucky by 32 on national television and spent the next two days on SportsCenter. Head coach Jimmy Allen wouldn’t refer to the greatest college basketball player as "Zion" throughout the week and during the game; he was "No. 1 Williamson."
Coaches all year have been pulling their best Norman Dale impression when it comes to Williamson, attempting to prove that he’s a mere mortal and not the superhero that he obviously is. And once they try to bring Williamson back to earth for their team, they have to figure out how the hell to guard him.
That’s the task this weekend for ninth-seeded UCF and head coach Johnny Dawkins. In the 41 hours between UCF’s win against VCU and its second-round matchup against Duke, he has to figure out how to effectively guard Williamson, for whom there is no comparison in the country and certainly no analogue UCF has faced this season.
“We have to understand that he’s a great player on any level. His skillset, with his size and explosiveness, makes him unique,” Dawkins said. “And you’re not going to stop Zion. We’re not going in, ‘We’re going to stop Zion Williamson.’ We’re going to try to contain a player like that.”
The storyline heading into Sunday’s tilt is the obvious one. Two of the sport’s most recognizable players are going head-to-head in Williamson and 7'6" center Tacko Fall. Fall made headlines overnight when he promised Andy Katz that Williamson wouldn't dunk over him at Colonial Life Arena, and the specter of that occurring—along with the game being played as the lead-in to 60 Minutes on CBS—will likely make this the most-watched game of the weekend.
“What is he supposed to say? Is he supposed to say like, I’m going to dunk on him?” Williamson questioned Saturday, mostly laughing off the comment. “He said the right thing, but I’m not really focused on that.”
Fall doesn’t have the quickness or general ability to guard Williamson anywhere away from the rim. The sound byte is great and we’re all here for the show, but Dawkins knows guarding Williamson is about more than Fall trying to cash the check his mouth wrote.
The best way to guard Williamson is to not have him on the floor. Duke went 3–3 without him during his six-game absence following his sprained knee in the infamous show blowout game against Carolina. Conventional wisdom said he’d ease back into things at the ACC tournament, but he ended up playing 111 of the 120 possible minutes in the three games. And Williamson only played 30 minutes (25 points on 12-of-16 shooting) in the 23-point win Friday, so his tank should be full for Sunday.
Getting Williamson into foul trouble is your best bet, but he doesn’t allow himself to get into that danger. In his 30 games this season, Williamson has had four or more fouls just five times. Only once—a December win against Texas Tech—has Williamson fouled out. He’s had 10 games where he’s had one foul or none.
“God is good,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “God gave him extraordinary ability but also extraordinary intelligence on how to use the ability, and a work ethic to blend the two. His lateral movement and his ability to move with speed and change directions is phenomenal.”
Understanding that Williamson will probably be on the floor for close to, if not all, 40 minutes, UCF will have to force Williamson to his right hand. North Dakota State forward Deng Geu had success with that in the first half Friday night before Williamson took over right after halftime.
“He likes to spin back over that right shoulder in the post,” Geu says. “Just try to get him out to get catches farther out. He’s very strong so if he gets close to the basket…”
This is probably the biggest key for UCF or any of Duke’s future opponents this tournament. If Williamson is in space, watch out. His dexterity and agility, combined of course with his blend of speed and power, makes him a nightmare matchup in space. Dawkins wouldn’t divulge the game plan, but if UCF plays man-to-man defense Sunday, only 6-foot-6 Aubrey Dawkins or 6-foot-11 forward Collin Smith would be able to guard Williamson outside the paint.
Perhaps UCF more than any other team has an equalizer for Williamson at the rim in the 7'6" Fall. Entering Friday night’s game, though, Williamson is shooting an astonishing 80% at the rim, according to Hoop Math, with almost three-quarters of his field-goal attempts coming at the rim.
Back in November, Army emphasized playing the gaps and forcing Duke and Williamson to play in the crowd. The weak spot was defending the 3-point shot, and Duke made a season-high 15 threes on 36 attempts as the Blue Devils ran away with what was a close game until the final 10 minutes. But Duke hasn’t shot the three well at all this season and especially recently, having gone the past 12 games without double-digit makes from deep.
Finally, because Williamson is such a source of energy for these young Blue Devils, not allowing The Big Play that can cause things to snowball is crucial. Richman talked about it with his North Dakota State team before the game, and when Williamson got a dunk off his missed free throw and then went behind the back on a fastbreak steal in the first two minutes of the second half, the game was put out of reach.
“He’s going to find ways to score the basket and he’s going to find ways to make spectacular plays. He’s done that all his life,” Dawkins said. “We have to understand that we can’t let that be a distraction to what we do.”
Plenty of coaches have tried that before with poor results. UCF hopes Sunday will be different, and the Knights are aware this is about far more than Zion vs. Tacko.
“I don’t want it to be like a freak show between Zion and I,” Fall said. “It’s bigger than that.”