The final score of Duke’s loss to Michigan State is misleading in more ways than one. The six point deficit belies the fact that the Spartans held a comfortable lead for much of the second half en route to their victory, with the final margin trimmed only by some desperation Duke threes. But while Duke struggled mightily for most of the contest, that final score also obscures the potential that the young Blue Devils showed early in the game.
Duke led Michigan state 18-9 after 10 minutes of play, buoyed by a suffocating defensive effort that forced a normally sure-handed Spartan squad into numerous turnovers. Wendell Moore attacked the rim and got to the charity stripe for four early points. Matthew Hurt played strong in the paint and took advantage of his speed and dexterity to generate mismatches against larger Michigan State defenders. Jalen Johnson continued to represent a matchup nightmare. And despite struggling from the field, Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward were the impetus behind Duke’s fast break attack.
Then Duke was dealt two devastating blows, and their youth was exposed.
First, Johnson committed his second foul with 9:14 to go, and was held out the remainder of the first half. Minutes later, Joey Baker was called for a questionable flagrant foul that not only handed Michigan State a free possession, but also the momentum.
The Spartans, as veteran teams tend to do, took advantage of the momentum shift and took a four point lead to the half. Out of the break, they quickly reestablished that momentum, while Duke looked flummoxed on the offensive end. Notably, Johnson was out of the flow of the game and was tentative on both ends of the floor, an unfortunate side effect of him missing nearly 10 minutes of game action.
Duke’s inability to find consistent offense without Johnson on the floor is a major flaw that will have to be addressed. Without Johnson as a catalyst, Duke won’t win games where Moore goes 0-for-9 from the field and most of the team’s five three point buckets coming with the game out of reach. The Blue Devils’ susceptibility to that momentum swing is also a glaring weakness common to young teams, and another clear flaw exposed by the experienced Spartans.
But before all those flaws were exposed, Duke played 10 minutes of very impressive basketball. Without Johnson’s second foul or Baker’s flagrant compounding that error, Duke very easily could’ve held onto a halftime lead and we might’ve seen a very different contest. So yes, this Duke team has very clear flaws that could derail their chances against high-caliber squads like Michigan State this year. But the Blue Devils also looked like the superior team for a non-trivial stretch of this contest before unfortunate circumstances caused the wheels to come off. The floor and ceiling of this team’s potential might be wider than any we’ve seen in the last half decade, leaving Coach K a challenge unlike any he’s faced in perhaps the last half-decade, but one loss to a good Michigan State squad has not caused that ceiling to collapse by any means.
- Joey Baker’s final stats were obviously horrendous, and his shooting performance concerning. But the junior provided the Blue Devils with a huge burst of energy with his defensive hustle, forcing multiple turnovers on his own accord. He may not have the athleticism to defend more athletic shooting guards, but in the right matchup he can still provide spark defensively with effort alone.
- Lost in the disappointing outcome was a stellar performance by Hurt, not just in the box score but also holding his own against a Spartan squad known for dominating the paint. Coach K obviously has enough faith in Hurt to keep him as the team’s primary rebounder, evidenced best by the mere four minutes played by Mark Williams against a Michigan State team known for its rebounding prowess. With a different outcome, Hurt’s evolution into a viable college center would’ve been the story of this game.
- Was DJ Steward’s opening night dominance a mirage? After many heralded the freshman as a potential one-and-done following his explosion against Coppin State, Steward was scoreless from the field against Michigan State and never appeared to hunt his own shot with the confidence he previously showed. The reality is likely somewhere in the middle of these two performances.
- Steward’s struggles were compounded by Moore’s, who also failed to make a field goal in the game. Johnson is clearly Duke’s first offensive option, and Hurt looks like the second. For the Blue Devils to be a championship caliber squad, a consistent third scoring option must emerge. If Moore attacks the basket and leaves the long-range shooting to Hurt and Steward, he can fill that void. If he continues to settle for contested threes, his struggles might be a prolonged storyline this year.