Michigan State played their hated rival Michigan three times this season. In all three games, they found themselves down by at least two possessions in the second half to a team that, according to most prognosticators (and, ironically, in an inversion of the recent history of the rivalry), put significantly more NBA-caliber talent on the court. And in all three games, the Spartans pulled out the victory.
That’s been the defining characteristic of this year’s Michigan State squad: consistently playing smart enough, tough enough, and together enough to win games that, based on talent alone, they probably shouldn’t. Indeed, despite their No. 2 seed and dual Big Ten titles, this most certainly isn’t a vintage Spartan squad. Instead, they’re a team that is a perfect example of a team being greater than the sum of its parts.
In fact, it’s likely the average Duke fan might know more about the injured Spartans than the ones that will definitely be on the court on Sunday. Josh Langford was Michigan State’s best shooter, and the player best suited to create his own offense, during the non-conference schedule, but was lost for the season with an ankle injury. In Langford’s absence, Kyle Ahrens stepped up as a super sixth-man, but a severe ankle sprain suffered in the Big Ten Tournament final will leave him on the sideline on Sunday. Nick Ward is a 6-8, 245 pound load in the post with soft hands; however, he suffered a hairline fracture in his left hand that kept him out of the last five games of the regular season, and suffered a bone bruise on that same hand Friday night, leaving him questionable for the showdown with Duke.
Who does that leave for the Spartans? Primarily the one name that every fan will know, Cassius Winston. With the injuries to Michigan State’s other primary scorers, Winston has been forced into a do-everything role for his team, averaging nearly 19 points per game and 7.5 assists per game for the season. Winston is a deadeye three-point shooter at 40% for the year, and has numerous crafty ways to find his own shot and get to the rim.
But there’s a reason that the Big Ten player of the year is generating zero NBA buzz: Winston only stand 6-0 tall and lacks elite athleticism. Tre Jones has shown the bona fides to shut down opposing point guards one-on-one all year, and most would judge him quicker and stronger than Winston. While shutting down a player of Winston’s caliber is probably asking too much, Jones has the skill set to limit Michigan State’s lone player that can create his own offense.
Surrounding Winston are a cast of solid supporting players, all with a role they fill admirably, but also with severe limitations. Senior Matt McQuaid has been a three-point specialist throughout his tenure in East Lansing, but mostly in a sixth-man role. This year, especially following Langford’s injury, McQuaid has been forced to be more aggressive offensively, while also typically guarding the opposition’s best offensive guard (look for him to be matched up against RJ Barrett today). But more than 60% of McQuaid’s made baskets this year have come from behind the arc, and because of the energy he expends on the defensive end he has been prone to disappear offensively on occasion. Duke could limit McQuaid’s impact by taking advantage of Barrett’s size advantage on offense (McQuaid stands 6-4), while potentially using Jordan Goldwire to shadow this key three point shooter, much as he was used against Buddy Boeheim and Cam Johnson in the ACC Tournament.
Senior Kenny Goins has been a solid defensive specialist, primarily off the bench, during his career. He stands 6-7 and has good feet, allowing him to switch on most screens. But his role has changed this year, having moved into the starting lineup, playing more than 30 minutes a game after only playing 13 minutes per game last season. What’s more, he’s added a three point shot to his game seemingly from nowhere: Goins is shooting 35% from beyond the arc this year after only attempting 15 threes in his first three seasons on campus. But Goins, like McQuaid, is not a threat to create his own shot or get to the rim, with more than half of his field goals on the year coming from behind the arc. Duke should be careful of helping off of Goins defensively to avoid giving him open threes, but his impact will likely come primarily on the glass (he averages nine rebounds per game) and on defense.
In the paint, Michigan State arguably benefitted from Ward’s injury, as it furthered the development of sophomore Xavier Tillman and inserted him into the starting lineup. Tillman is a mobile 6-8, able to switch most screens (it was this development that keyed Michigan State’s sweep over Michigan). He’s also become Michigan State’s third leading scorer with just under 10 points per game. But most of those baskets come from opportunities created by Winston; once again, he’s a solid complimentary piece who can’t be relied upon to create his own shot.
Meanwhile, Ward has returned to the lineup, relieving Tillman off the bench. He’s a load inside and is going to get offensive boards. And, when 100%, Ward has a solid post-up game, but he also has a tendency to become a “black hole” when he gets the ball (he only has 23 assists on the entire year). He also is a defensive liability when compared to Tillman, especially if he can be drawn outside the paint. Even inside the paint, he’s not a huge shot-blocker, and has been prone to foul trouble his entire career. If Duke can force Ward into guarding Zion Williamson, that’s a matchup to attack.
The fifth spot on the floor is filled at the start by freshman Aaron Henry, a solid athlete who has had sparks of brilliance (including 20 points in the Sweet 16), while also frustrating Tom Izzo to the point that he famously berated him in the midst of the Spartan’s first round escape from Bradly. Without Ahrens, freshmen Gabe Brown and Thomas Kithier have been thrust into roles off the bench despite playing severely limited minutes throughout the season. If either play extended minutes, that’s likely a good sign for Duke.
Make no mistake, Michigan State can beat Duke today. They’re more experienced than the Blue Devils and have forged an identity fighting through adversity all season. But there are numerous matchups the Blue Devils can attack, especially with Williamson, and it’s possible that Duke will be taller and more athletic at each spot on the floor this afternoon. Winston is a transcendent college player, but outside of him this isn’t your typical group of Spartans.
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