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Next Up For Duke Basketball: Michigan State For The 2019 East Regional Championship

Michigan State is always tough but this year’s team looks like a real load.

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Virginia Tech v Duke
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the second half in the East Regional game of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Capital One Arena on March 29, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Duke and Michigan State will meet again in the 2019 East Regional finals and both teams are banged up.

For Duke, Marques Bolden is playing but still getting over his ACC Tournament knee sprain, Jack White played a couple of minutes against Virginia Tech Friday as he’s recovering from a hammy problem and Cam Reddish will be a game time decision because of his weird knee issue that apparently occurred just before game time Friday evening.

On Saturday, Coach K said that “[h]e’s had a little bit of a problem with his knee. It’s not structural. Nothing structural. A jumper’s knee, tendinitis -- I guess there are a number of different things. But at different times, it can inhibit you -- or you feel pretty good and then you can play, or you can work yourself through it. But yesterday we weren’t able to do that.”

The Duke training staff knows more than we ever will, but Muggsy Bogues got acupuncture treatment when his knee was bone on bone and played for some time past that.

Just sayin’.

Duke could obviously use him. He’s a clutch shooter and a versatile defender. He’d be a big help - so would White if he can go.

Among his other gifts, White is strong and the Spartans are always physical.

For Tom Izzo’s bunch, Joshua Langford is out for the year with an ankle injury, Kyle Ahren had a back injury and now a serious ankle sprain, Nick Ward hurt his left hand (hairline fracture in the fourth metatarsal) and now has a deep bruise on the fifth metatarsal on the same hand.

He said nothing could keep him out of this one and that attitude kind of sums up Michigan State’s resilience this year.

This might be the only time lately that Duke has faced a team with similar injury problems.

Izzo brings a battle-tested team to the finals: he has seven upperclassmen and two sophomores. He also has a seven-man freshman class including walk-on Jack Hoiberg. whose father Fred just accepted the Nebraska job. Along with Langford, he gives Michigan State some excellent student coaches on the bench.

Obviously Izzo’s rotation is diminished because of injuries. Against LSU he played just eight guys and one of them got just one minute.

His starters now are Kenny Goins (6-7 Sr.), Aaron Henry (6-6 Fr.), Xavier Tillman (6-8 So.), Matt McQuaid (6-4 Jr.) and Cassius Winston (6-0 Jr).

His primary reserves against LSU were Ward (6-8 Jr) and Brown (6-7 Fr).

Just in passing, note that Tillman weighs 260 and Ward 245. As usual, Izzo has some bruisers.

So far in the tournament, MSU has narrowly beaten Bradley, smoked Minnesota and then taken apart LSU.

Michigan State is 10-1 in its last 11 games which, as they say, ain’t too shabby.

We’re not completely sold on the idea of the Spartans as a late-season juggernaut though and we don’t mean to diminish them by that. It’s just that it’s hard to judge by their opponents in this year’s field.

Bradley gave them a really good game, losing by 11, but it was a one point game with 6:24 left. Michigan State hit 25 of 26 foul shots, which sure helped.

As for Minnesota, the Spartans played them in early February and won by 15. They won by 20 in March so that’s more but still not like Minnesota played them as tough as, say, Bradley.

And finally, LSU. If you thought an SEC team without its head coach and with some serious turmoil was going to beat an Izzo-coached team in March, we have a bridge for sale.

That was an easy win largely because Tony Benford cannot match Izzo as a tactician (incidentally, the rumor that Buzz Williams to Texas A&M has a corollary and it’s that his good friend Benford will join him in Lubbock).

None of that is to diminish this team’s heart. It’s just that those three teams are not a great measuring rod for the Spartans. It’s not like it’s their fault.

Duke probably will be a good one. Over in the Detroit News, Bob Wojnowski is strikingly confident that Michigan State’s power game can take down the Blue Devils.

Well maybe. He could be right; we’ll know soon. What we do know already is that Duke has faced up to big bodies from Michigan State before and Coach K’s formula has worked 91.7 percent of the time so far.

We don’t know Michigan State as well this year as we have in some past years but obviously the key is Cassius Winston. They need a great game from him to prevail.

Then Duke needs to stay out of foul trouble. Our guess is that the Spartans will try to pack the lane - who wouldn’t? - and dare Duke to win from outside. That almost worked for Virginia Tech as Duke hit 6-20 or right about normal, around 30 percent.

However, Duke hit 25-36 on two pointers which works out to 69.5 percent.

The Spartans have a lot more inside than the Hokies do of course and that’s a concern. But we don't think you can fully appreciate Williamson on TV or his ability to turn a game with a shockingly athletic play. Back to our friend Wojo:

“In a sense, the legend of Zion is bigger than the kid himself, undersized height-wise, over-sized in other ways, as nimble as a near-300-pounder can be. It’ll be a surprise if he’s not the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft...

“None of that matters to the Spartans, who used their inside strength to pummel LSU.

“‘If you just watched (Zion’s) highlights, you’d probably get overwhelmed, like this guy’s athleticism is unbelievable,” the 6-8 Tillman said. “But when you break down the film and you see his missed shots, or you see his turnovers, or his mixed defensive assignments, it kind of makes him more human, because he makes mistakes just like everyone else.’

“Williamson is a defensive force with a knack for steals and is a terrific rebounder.

“His appeal is in his rarity, a big man with incredible skills, a dynamic personality and a fierce competitiveness.”

Having watched him for a full season now, as strange as it sounds, we think they - or at least Wojnowski - is underestimating him.

Of course he makes mistakes. Of course he sometimes turns the ball over and makes mistakes on defense. And of course he misses shots.

But since his return in the ACC Tournament, Williamson has shot 68-97 - 70 percent. Take out the Tacko Fall factor (12-24) and it goes up to nearly 77 percent.

His three point shooting is also up sharply since returning, and is now at 47 percent.

You can’t really get the full impact of his game from television. You don’t see the shocking guickness and it’s hard to follow him individually on a screen. For a reference point, consider two of his blocks against Virginia Tech.

The block of 6-10 Kerry Blackshear - the dramatic one - first.

Another guy was guarding Blackshear who shot over him. Williamson turned in the lane on a dime, bounced over, and got the shot near its apex.

On the second, Justin Robinson beat him to the basket and Williamson simply caught him from behind.

Just as impressive were the number of times he didn’t just go after plays just because he is physically capable of doing it. What Wojnowski clearly doesn’t understand is that, as long as he’s in college, whenever Williamson steps on the court he’s almost certainly going to be the quickest, the fastest, the strongest and the smartest player on the court. You focus on the 285 and you’re not considering the minimal body fat or the superb reflexes. You focus on the 45-50 inch vertical and you overlook the cool decision making.

We’ll be interested to see what he says after the game when he’s presumably seen him in person. Jay Bilas’s reaction after the Kentucky game is still the most sensible: “Oh My God.”

This is a solid Michigan State team - it always is. And it is a team with an immense heart as it has shown repeatedly.

Our overall critique of the Duke-Michigan State series is that the Spartans have tended to be methodical while the Blue Devils are more daring. That may not be as true this time as it usually is but we’d still say Duke is more daring and that is an advantage.

Michigan State’s best bet is still to pound Duke. Duke’s best bet is to turn Tre Jones and perhaps Jordan Goldwire loose on Winston and MSU’s other ballhandlers. That leaves Williamson and Barrett freedom to go after situations and help turn the Spartans over.

We really admire Barrett’s willingness to let Williamson have the spotlight because he’s not that far behind. No one is as efficient, but on any particular night, Barrett could get 30+points, or 15 rebounds or 11 assists. People focus on his shooting and ignore the rest of his game, not least of all his hard-nosed defense.

We probably don’t need to mention it, but having Reddish available would help immensely on both ends of the court.

One final thing to consider: Duke has a hidden advantage over most teams thanks to Duke University Medical Center. We don’t know if Duke Medicine can work its magic on Reddish in time for Sunday afternoon, but nothing would surprise us because miracles happen there on a regular basis. Since it’s a known problem (although unknown to most people outside the locker room), we’re sure there’s a treatment plan in place.

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