Even with injuries and foul trouble, Michigan State is no easy out and that was the case Tuesday night as the Spartans hung around until the game was in the final stages. Duke pulled away to win, 81-71.
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Duke overcame Michigan State's traditional combination of rebounding, strength and defense with solid defense, excellent transition offense and just solid play on offense in general.
Duke shot 27-50 overall for 50% and broke even on three point shots (7-14). But the starters shot 25-41 (60.9%). And the leader of the band was Jahlil Okafor.
Here's one measure of Okafor's level of play so far: he hit 8-10 against Michigan State - and his percentage came down.
So far, Okafor has hit 8-10 against the Spartans, 8-10 against Fairfield and 9-10 against Presbyterian.
Still, he is a freshman and at times it shows, though not often. He picked up two quick fouls in the second half, to push his total to four, and once or twice he seemed a bit perturbed on the court.
He could move a bit more without the ball. But otherwise?
He's been spectacular. It's only a handful of games into the new season, but he's probably playing as well as anyone.
For the first part of the game, Duke played beautifully. Not well, beautifully. It was like watching Brazilian soccer at its finest, what they like to call The Beautiful Game. The ball moved so well, so effortlessly, the baskets came so easily. You can find it for a time, but not for long. But when it happens, it's wonderful to watch.
It looked quite a bit like the template for the national team.
In the middle of the first half, Michigan State began to dictate the tempo, and the more deliberate pace favored the Spartans.
Not enough to catch up, but enough to repeatedly cut into Duke's lead.
Duke wasn't nearly as smooth at this point. No one is for long against Michigan State. They just make it very difficult.
Okafor was supported by senior Quinn Cook, who had 19 on 7-12 from the floor, and who got through Michigan State's defenders without too much difficulty. Backcourt mate Tyus Jones had 17 and six assists with no turnovers. Justise Winslow added 15.
As we've seen so far, Okafor makes it very difficult to pack the inside and since you have to defend him, you give up perimeter shots. Duke's getting a lot of easy threes and against Michigan State, as we mentioned, the Devils were 7-14.
Still, when Michigan State was threatening in the second half, when Okafor picked up his fourth foul and left the game, it was Tyus Jones who came through.
Right after that, Jones stole the ball and ended up with a layup, then. hit a four-point play.
He put Duke back up 64-51 and the Devils stayed in control from that point on.
Duke has things to work on. Defense is one of them, which is not surprising, considering that three starters are freshmen. But it's also abundantly clear that there's a lot to work with, too. Michigan State had some limitations due to injuries, but it's still a Tom Izzo team. Beating Michigan State is an accomplishment and something to build on.
We didn't watch the entire Kansas-Kentucky game, but it was obvious enough that Kentucky was far better. Pretty clearly this team absorbed a few lessons from Bobby Hurley's unexpectedly tough Buffalo team and played superb defense.
But a couple of points if we may.
Kansas is surprisingly small up front, and Kentucky has an enormous front line loaded with shotblockers (UK had 11 blocks). Still, every team has weaknesses and no one is invulnerable.
Despite having a vast size advantage, Kentucky's big men couldn't fully capitalize. The team shot 43.1% overall and while Dakari Johnson was 5-6, Willie Cauley-Stein was 3-7, Alex Poythress 0-5, Karl-Anthony Towns 4-8 and Trey Lyles 1-5.
Remember this is against a team with no significant contributors over 6-8 and Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson are 7-0, Towns is 6-11, Lyles is 6-9 and Poythress is 6-8.
You'd think that would bleed over into rebounding as well. Yet it was fairly close overall - 47-42 in Kentucky's favor - and KU had 20 offensive rebounds to Kentucky's 15.
Kansas had 45 misses and got 20 second chances, but Kentucky had 33 misses and 15 second chances as well. We would have thought that would have been much more to Kentucky's advantage, given the huge size advantage the Cats have.
And in a game with no pressure whatsoever, UK shot just 61% from the line. Against Buffalo, Kentucky shot 65.2%; against Grand Canyon 73.7% .
Kentucky's talent is really obvious - Calipari's big men can really assert themselves - yet it is, at present, unorganized.
And this is Calipari's dilemma, which he clearly recognizes - on the one hand, he has overwhelming talent, including some he had thought would be gone (Cauley-Stein and Poythress and possibly Dakari Johnson and Derek Willis).
He cannot play them all as much as they deserve, but he also cannot afford an unhappy bench - hence the platoons.
Obviously it's early. But the platoon system isn't working because roles are not being developed. Remember Bill Guthridge's six-man alphabetical rotation? That didn't work either.
Kentucky can bump along for a while with platoons, but ultimately he's going to have to go with his best players to get his best team. And that's likely to lead to bruised egos.
In the non-conference portion of the schedule, Kentucky will see Texas, UNC and Louisville.
The same advantages will be there, but those teams will have their own strengths as well.
One other thing worth noting - it's an extravagantly talented team, but not the quickest we've ever seen. Just as a mental exercise, imagine Kentucky vs., say, Wichita. Pretty fun game, wouldn't you say?
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