When Duke has games like the one on tap Tuesday night with Michigan State, you’ll often hear a player after the game say a variant of something like this: games like this are why we come to Duke.
Yes, #1 Duke squares off with #2 Michigan State Tuesday night and as Coach K says, “it’ll be a hell of a night.”
We have a pretty good idea of who Duke is now. There could be some lineup tinkering but the top seven guys are all set - Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter, Gary Trent, Trevon Duval, Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier.
The guys past those guys will sort out their roles over the next few weeks but the top seven are pretty set and the last two will likely come off the bench.
Michigan State represents a significant challenge and like all Tom Izzo teams, you can expect a physical and tough effort from the Spartans.
Unlike the Baby Devils, Michigan State has three seniors, three juniors and six sophomores.
The Spartans best player is sophomore Miles Bridges, who didn't have a great game in Durham last year. He’s a spectacular talent though and will be a hard matchup for the Blue Devils because unlike last year, Duke doesn't have a pair of experienced defenders to sic on him.
Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson gave Duke a great pair of defenders who between them could guard just about anyone. Without them Duke will have to turn to someone else in a man defense, probably freshman Trent initially, with help probably coming from DeLaurier, who is agile enough to give Bridges trouble (we expect to see some zone in this one largely because of the matchup with Bridges).
The starters are slated to be Bridges, 6-0 sophomore Cassius Winston, 6-5 soph Joshua Langford, 6-8 sophomore Nick Ward and 6-11 freshman Jaren Jackson
Michigan State also has the luxury of a senior leader in the wonderfully named Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr - apparently the grandfather was a fan of the deep-voiced Chicago-born crooner, maybe the dad too. Despite his extensive experience though, he isn’t starting.
Like the 5-10 Nairn, 6-9 Gavin Schilling, 6-4 Matt McQuaid and Xavier Tillman also got double-digit minutes in MSU’s opening win over North Florida.
From here it looks like a typical Michigan State roster: these guys are thick. Bridges is 225, Ward is 245, Jackson is 242 and Tillman is 6-8 and 260.
So now we have at least two problems for Duke to overcome: experience and strength.
Grayson Allen has plenty of experience but Michigan State probably wins the strength argument.
Not that Duke completely lacks muscle. Carter is strong and explosive. DeLaurier is a sleek 6-9 but he’s no cupcake. And Bolden brings power off the bench, and Duke has Antonio Vrankovic and Jack White who are capable of banging as well.
We’ll be particularly interested in seeing how Bagley does when the Spartans slow things down and treat him like a human pinball. He’s going to have to prove himself in that sort of game.
We are on record as admiring Tom Izzo a great deal and we really do. That guy is a tremendous coach. His teams aren’t fancy but they are always tough-minded, physical, they defend and they rebound very well.
He’s said before and repeated it again this week that Duke is a standard he judges himself by and against which he has come up short 10 times out of 11.
When he was asked Monday how often he thinks about his struggles against Duke he said this: “Every day. It doesn’t sit very well with me. The truth of it is they’ve beaten us. There have been some fights, very few one-sided games. But that’s the next step for us. We have to learn to win big games on big stages. There’s no bigger stage than this tournament. There’s no bigger stage than playing Duke.”
When we were watching these teams last year in Cameron at a certain point we realized the difference between them and it’s deceptively simple: Michigan State, year in and year out, is unquestionably fundamentally sound, as is Duke.
The difference then?
Michigan State tends to be methodical where Duke is more daring.
Last year, the game was tied 48-48 in Cameron when Duke ran off 11 straight points to put the game away.
That run was partly sparked by Michigan State’s kids slapping the floor. In other words, they mocked a Duke tradition and did it in Cameron.
Those guys are a lot more experienced now and they’re bound to have learned a lot.
We rarely rave about a Duke team and we have raved about this one and we meant it. This group has extraordinary potential and under Mike Krzyzewski, Duke has always been daring. When it comes to that, keep an eye on Allen and Duval. We all know Allen well at this point but Duval has shown signs of immense talent and currently has a 20-1 assist-turnover ratio.
None of that means this game will be easy. Izzo’s teams are always tough and like all teams, as promising as it is, Duke has flaws and weaknesses. Wendell Carter needs to stay out of foul trouble - he’s batting 50-50 so far. Duke’s bench hasn’t been hugely productive against weaker opponents so we’ll have to see how they do against a tougher team. And we want to see how Bagley does against a big, physical player like Jackson, not to mention how he reacts when he’s double and triple-teamed down low.
Whatever happens, this is a game between two honorable opponents who will both fight hard. There is no shame in either one losing. We’re excited and proud to see them play.
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