(1) Duke vs. (2) Michigan St.
Initial Thoughts: Harry Duke-dini? Devil Copperfield? Regardless of what you want to call it, the Blue Devil escape act struck again Friday night, as the Coach K and his crew somehow managed to swipe a victory from a game Virginia Tech squad. A mysterious fourth foul on Ahmed Hill (rather than a clear hook on Zion) became a major turning point, as Tre Jones coolly buried his fifth three to extend the lead to five late in the game. Still, though, VT had a chance to send it to overtime, but a gorgeous play design wasn’t enough, as Hill rushed the finish and missed it wide left. Even a stunning Cam Reddish absence from the lineup due to an apparent knee injury wasn’t enough to derail the (deal with the) Devil machine.
Controversial calls and baffling missed lay-ups aside, Duke is in the Elite Eight, a game away from the CBS/Turner wet dream of Zion in the Final Four. In the Devils’ way stands Michigan State, a college basketball powerhouse in its own right who has been highly impressive through three NCAA Tournament wins. Sparty quietly moved ahead of Duke on KenPom after Friday night’s results, leading to an extremely short opening line of Duke -2 (it’s between -1.5 and -2.5 in places as I write this). A line that low would have been unthinkable against this Duke team in late January, but the 0-3 against-the-spread Devils haven’t exactly fired on all cylinders in this tournament:
And I have to mention the elephant in the room: can Tom Izzo finally knock off Mike Krzyzewski? Izzo is 1-11 against the Duke legend in his career, somehow unable to conquer one of the sport’s largest icons despite an immaculate track record of his own. Their most recent NCAA Tournament meeting in 2015 saw Tyus Jones & Co. spank the Spartans at the Final Four en route to Coach K’s fifth national title, and once again Duke boasts a Jones at point guard and a championship-caliber squad. There’s a talent gap again this year, but it’s not a chasm, and this Duke team hasn’t exactly been playing out of its mind…
Duke on Offense: As I mentioned on Twitter late Friday night, Duke has faced two consecutive defenses that were designed to force jump shot, resulting in Duke taking 45 threes combined in those two games. Virginia Tech largely ignored Tre Jones (albeit not as disrespectfully as how UCF treated him), and he responded with aplomb, knocking down five threes and another baseline jumper to key the Duke offense.
When Duke did manage to penetrate the Virginia Tech defensive shell, whether it be via the bounce or the pass, things got ugly due to the Hokies’ lack of size: Duke shot 69.4% inside the arc, with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett combining to go 17/22 by themselves. That will be a far more difficult task against Sparty’s elite interior defense, as the Spartans are #2 in the country in 2-point defense, allowing only 41.5% makes inside the arc. Michigan State doesn’t have the 7’6 paint monster that UCF did, but they do have the size any physicality from positions 2-5 to make Duke work much harder for points in the paint.
Defending Zion is almost impossible, especially on plays like the alley-oop post lobs and his full-head-of-steam transition drives to the rim, but Michigan State will rotate a variety of different defender on him to try and mess with his rhythm. Aaron Henry is more of a longer wing type, Kenny Goins is a lanky forward nearest to Zion in position (whatever that position may be), and Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman are burly big men who have the mobility to at least have a prayer at bother Zion. The Spartans’ tremendous help defense principles will help too, and Zion must be wary of picking up offensive fouls against a team and scheme that will be more than willing to take charges if his head is down.
Michigan St. on Offense: This end of the floor is where things get a little dicier for the Spartans. Michigan State doesn’t have the same level of shooting up and down the roster as Virginia Tech, and if you can’t stretch out Duke’s defense, scoring inside becomes a near impossibility with Zion, DeLaurier, and Bolden patrolling inside. That’s not to say Sparty can’t shoot at all – they just knocked down 13/32 threes against a massive LSU team – but a repeat performance where Henry, Gabe Brown, and Tillman combine to go 7/12 is highly unlikely.
Where Michigan State can absolutely succeed in this one is on the offensive glass. Virginia Tech plays one big man (they have one big man on the entire roster), and the Hokies were able to grab 44% of their misses against a Duke team not terribly interested in boxing out. Having shooters helped that, as it spread out the Duke defense and left VT’s lone big, Kerry Blackshear, in one-on-one battles with DeLaurier and Bolden (Blackshear had 11 offensive rebounds by himself), but what Sparty lacks in spacing, it more than makes up for in size and physicality. Izzo will have two of Ward, Tillman, and Goins on the floor at all times, all three of whom will crash the glass with abandon and bully Duke’s bigs if they play as softly as they did against Blackshear. Henry is a wild card here, as well, coming off a five-offensive-rebound performance of his own against LSU, and if Reddish can’t play, he’ll take advantage of Barrett’s often lazy positioning.
Of course, the Spartan offense really comes down to Winston vs. Jones. Winston has been nothing short of marvelous this year, generating offense for himself and others even as the rest of the roster has lacked creation. As mentioned in prior Michigan State breakdowns, they run a ton of ball screen action with Winston and a big man, an area where the Devils have mostly been excellent all year. They can switch a lot, but they’ve rarely run into a point guard as adept in this action as Winston, and he’ll have a field day against Bolden or DeLaurier if Duke tries to simply switch everything. Plus, Ward is good to go after a scary fall on his previously injured hand, and his brutish post game would punish switches on the inside, as well. That means hedging and recovering, the kind of defense that lights up Winston’s eyes, as he’s able to manipulate less sound defensive schemes and create openings for McQuaid threes or rolls to the paint. Jones is a phenomenal on-ball defender, but even he faces a tall task trying to consistently keep Winston out of the lane.
Key Factor(s): As it often is in Duke games, tempo will be crucial. This Michigan State team is Tom Izzo’s fastest since 2014, as he’s given the key to his junior point guard and allowed him the freedom to push in transition. It’s still a selective running game, though, and I expect Izzo to intelligently encourage patience when easy shots don’t present themselves. Zion and Barrett are simply unstoppable in the open floor, and allowing them to run free in a track meet would be a disaster, especially given how well Sparty can score in the half-court.
Of course, the Devils’ outside shooting will also be paramount in this result. If Jones or Barrett is hot (or if Cam Reddish plays), Izzo will have to extend his man-to-man more than he’d like, opening up driving lanes for Zion, Barrett, and Jones. His bigs are smart and won’t foul excessively, but any openings in the paint result in two points against this Duke team.
Final Predictions: Duke’s luck is bordering on unbelievable right now, as three opponent shots have seemed destined to go in in the final seconds, only to fall wanting to the floor. Michigan State has the discipline, defensive scheme, and talent to give the Devils another serious challenge, but Coach K and Zion just seem destined to reach the Final Four at this point. I think Zion, Barrett, and Jones make just enough plays to get it done. 80-76, Duke.