Can 7'6" Tacko Fall Finally Be the Player Who Intimidates Zion Williamson?

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2019

Is Tacko Fall's eight-foot wingspan enough to stop Zion Williamson?
Is Tacko Fall's eight-foot wingspan enough to stop Zion Williamson?Associated Press

Just when you thought no more could be said about Zion Williamson's eye-popping dunks, we'll get an NCAA tournament game where those jams are scrutinized more closely than ever.

There will be a test of wills, and probably egos, too, when Williamson squares off with the 7'6" tower that is Tacko Fall. And what transpires between the two may be far more compelling than the final numbers we'll see on the scoreboard when Duke and Fall's Central Florida Knights play on Sunday.

Tacko vs. Zion. It has the feel of a battle between superheroes that belongs in a future Marvel movie.

Fall wasted no time in throwing down the gauntlet, essentially issuing a promise that the 6'7" Williamson won't add to his greatest dunks in the second-round showdown:

"It's very hard [to dunk on me]," Fall told NCAA.com on Friday night, after an 18-rebound, 13-point, five-block performance against Virginia Commonwealth. "I won't allow it. I won't allow him to put me on one of his highlight tapes."

Easy to say. Harder to accomplish. But with a 96-inch wingspan, Fall just might have the natural resources to do it.

ESPN's Jay Bilas thinks so, and more importantly, Bilas thinks Fall can do far more than just blockade Williamson's parade of jams and dunks.

"You have to make decisions if you're going to take the ball to the basket [against Fall]," Bilas said after UCF's first-round victory. "He can block and change most shots, and it gives his teammates the ability to pressure the ball and get out in passing lanes, because he's back there as a gigantic eraser on their defensive pencil."

But before anyone gets into Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier comparisons or invokes great trash-talkers from past tournaments, it needs to be said that Fall's promise was not bravado or smack talk.

Because, as Bilas added about Fall, "If there's a nicer person in the college game, I haven't meant that person."

There's no stat for how nice guys fare when big bodies collide in the paint, but it won't be a surprise if the crowd in Columbia, South Carolina, showers Fall with support. Rooting for a 7'6" phenom from Senegal is pretty easy. What fan doesn't love a guy who can dunk without jumping? From Manute Bol to Yao Ming, the basketball universe has always savored seeing guys who have to duck to avoid hitting their heads on chandeliers.

Win or lose, Fall is the biggest man in this year's tourney.
Win or lose, Fall is the biggest man in this year's tourney.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

And the longer Duke remains a perennial powerhouse, the easier it becomes to root against the Blue Devils.

Expect to see a running shot chart on the action between Williamson and Fall. If they get deep into the second half and Williamson still hasn't tomahawked the rim, the tension will be palpable.

Can Fall throw the basketball equivalent of a no-hitter at Williamson? Can he shut down the most feared frontcourt man in college basketball, like Kentucky did with three-point record-holder Fletcher Magee on Saturday (eight points) against Wofford in what so far is the defensive performance of the tournament? And can the court hold up if the 310-pound Fall and 285-pound Williamson hit the deck at the same time?

The 23-year-old Fall has only been playing the game 10 years but was still the driving force behind UCF's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005—and its first March Madness win.

So many things to transfix the audience, but it won't be David vs. Goliath. More like Goliath vs. Goliath.

To Williamson's credit, he took no umbrage with Fall's promise of a highlight shutout.

"What is he supposed to say?" Williamson told reporters at a Saturday press conference. "Is he supposed to say I'm going to dunk on him? He said the right thing. He's a competitor, so obviously he's going to say he'll block my shot. That's basketball."

COLUMBIA, SC - MARCH 22: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks the ball against the North Dakota State Bison in the first half during the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Colonial Life Arena on March 22, 2019 in Colum
Lance King/Getty Images

One statistic that's been overlooked amid Williamson's dominance since his return from a knee injury March 14 is that Fall has actually outdunked him this season 81-66, per ESPN. Williamson's injury is an obvious factor in the disparity, as is a difference between the opponents they've faced.

But maybe the other question is whether Williamson is capable of rejecting one of Fall's shots.

We'll also get to see whether Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a better plan for stopping Fall than one of his former players and assistants has for defending Williamson. UCF coach Johnny Dawkins is as familiar as anyone with Coach K's philosophies, but in Fall, he also has someone who still has room to evolve.

"He's gotten even better this year," UCF coach Johnny Dawkins told CBSSports.com's Chip Patterson of Fall. "Throughout the season, I've seen improvement. I see him playing at the next level, and I think that's something he can accomplish because of his ability on and off the court."

At age 18, Williamson also is only beginning to tap his ultimate upside.

So, as players, they're both continuing to grow? Now that's really scary.

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