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Coach K: Marshall Plumlee is Duke's 'most important' player

Marshall Plumlee followed a 23-point, eight-rebound NCAA tourney opener with 10 boards and five blocks in the second round. Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Marshall Plumlee stands out. And it’s easy to see why.

He’s a 7-foot-1, 250-pound center who is built like a “Game of Thrones” character. But it’s not just his size but his heart that has turned the senior into a significant cog for Duke, which will face Oregon on Thursday in an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 game at the Honda Center.

“I’m really proud of Marshall,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said Wednesday of Plumlee, who plans to enlist in the United States Army after this season. “Marshall’s been our most important player, and I think the military has really helped him in that regard.”

He’s clearly significant in a matchup against an Oregon team ranked 45th in offensive rebounding rate on KenPom.com. Duke amassed a 23-point halftime lead over Yale in their second-round matchup, but the Bulldogs fought back by crashing the glass. Yale scored 21 second-chance points and snatched 20 offensive rebounds in a 71-64 loss to the Blue Devils.

Duke is aware, however, that a team with Oregon’s athleticism and physicality will also exploit its mistakes in the paint if the Blue Devils don’t keep the Ducks off the glass.

“It will be very important, especially with their athleticism, and they send a lot of guys after the glass,” Grayson Allen said. “Three, four, sometimes five guys. In the St. Joe’s game, they got a big bucket at the end off an offensive rebound, so we know that’s going to be key. It’s been one of our weaknesses, but we want to try to make it a strength for us, defensive rebounding, and really limit second-chance opportunities.”

While Plumlee finished second in ACC play in offensive rebounding rate (14.1 percent), he was 16th in defensive rebounding rate. But the Blue Devils will need the big man to help them keep the Ducks at bay with an Elite Eight berth on the line.

The good news for Duke is that Plumlee snatched 18 rebounds in their first two NCAA tournament games. He’s averaging 8.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks this season.

In Thursday’s game, the senior will be a leader on and off the court for a Duke squad seeking its first back-to-back Elite Eight appearances since 1998-99.

“He’s done a great job being our emotional leader,” Allen said. “He plays with a lot of fire down there. He makes plays that are effort plays: ripping down rebounds, coming over and blocking shots. Then he shows his emotion and it really fires us up and brings us all energy.”