Final Four Previews: Duke/Michigan State Will Win If…

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on April 4th, 2015


The time has finally come for all the hand-wringing, all the expectations, all the anticipation, and all the office pools between Jim from accounting and Bonnie the receptionist to be decided. In what undoubtedly has evolved into one of the more intriguing Final Fours in recent memory, the story lines bleeding out of Indianapolis this week has been plentiful. Will Coach Cal and the ‘Cats finish off The Perfect Season? Will Wisconsin play spoiler? Will the traditional power in blue once again reign supreme? Will the boys from East Lansing show that a team can win a ‘ship without a boatload of McDonald All-Americans? We’ll all find out soon. In the meantime…

Duke Will Win If…

Tom Izzo’s team has done things this March that Tom Izzo’s teams seem to do every March. One Michigan State postseason streak, however, has yet to continue. In each of the last 14 seasons, Tom Izzo’s Spartans have lost an NCAA Tournament game.

Duke's Leading Trio Of Freshmen (Pictured With Matt Jones, #13) Are The Reason Duke Will Advance To Championship Monday. (The Charlotte Observer)

Duke’s Leading Trio Of Freshmen (Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor) Are The Reason Duke Will Advance To Championship Monday. (The Charlotte Observer)

Expect that streak to continue Saturday. In a battle of teams with elite coaches and similarly thin benches, Duke’s star power and defense will prove to be difference-makers. By most accounts, Jahlil Okafor has been the second-best player in America this season. He was neither the best nor the second-best player in Houston last weekend, but Okafor is poised for a rebound (or 15) against an undersized Michigan State squad, which has only two regulars taller than 6’6” (Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling). The consensus two best players in that South regional – fellow Blue Devil freshmen Justise Winslow and South Region MOP Tyus Jones – will also feature prominently this weekend. Winslow’s profile has risen as much as any player’s this NCAA Tournament, and with mostly good reason. The enigmatic forward has saved his best basketball of the season for March, averaging 14 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 blocks per game in the Tournament. Throw in Jones, the steady hand guiding the leash on this explosive Duke offense, and the case could easily be made that Duke will have the three best players on the floor in this game.

The Spartans’ triumvirate of Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Brandon Dawson has headed a steadily improving offense, one that now ranks as one of the 15 most efficient in the country. That trio proved problematic for Duke back in the teams’ Nov. 18 matchup, combining for 46 of the Spartans 71 points and making 17-of-25 two-point field-goal attempts. Expect the Blue Devils to do a better job in making those three work for their points this time around. Quinn Cook did yeoman’s work last weekend in detaching Delon Wright and Kevin Pangos from their teams’ offenses. He should draw Trice on Saturday, while it’ll most likely be Matt Jones and Winslow assigned to Valentine and Dawson, respectively. No opponent has managed even 0.9 points per possession against Duke in this Tournament, and Gonzaga’s 52-point output was the lowest for a Bulldog team in over half a decade. It’s been a remarkable defensive turnaround for a team that was blitzed by NC State and Miami in mid-January; expect that improvement to operate visibly against a Spartans team with little offensive diversity beyond Trice, Valentine and Dawson.

Last season, a #7 seed entered their Final Four game against a #1 seed as six-point underdogs. That Saturday night ended with top-seeded Florida Shabazz-ed and ousted, but the script will read differently for Duke, who enter Saturday as five and a half point favorites. The discrepancy in elite talent will prove vital for the Blue Devils, and their talented trio of freshman will help remind Michigan State of their program’s post-2000 reality: even Izzo’s best March stories end in defeat.

Michigan State Will Win If…

Michigan State needs to be extra sharp on Saturday. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Michigan State needs to be extra sharp on Saturday. (Elsa/Getty Images)

  • Branden Dawson plays his best defensive game of the season. Duke’s offensive weapons are myriad, but freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow are the most lethal of the bunch. The Blue Devils are 7-0 when both players score 15 points or more, and even when one struggles – as Okafor did against Utah and Gonzaga last weekend (six and nine points, respectively) – the other usually picks up the slack; Winslow responded with 21 against the Utes and 16 against the Bulldogs. Since the 6’6” small forward is Mike Krzyzewski’s most athletic and explosive player, Michigan State’s most athletic and explosive guy, 6’6” Branden Dawson, will likely be tasked with slowing Winslow down. If the Spartan senior contains Winslow’s penetration and helps big men Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello pester Okafor on the low-block, Tom Izzo’s group will be in good shape. Dawson has proven his defensive versatility in the past – even bodying up against Frank Kaminsky in the Big Ten championship game – and he’ll need every bit of it on Saturday.
  • It catches fire from behind the arc. In Duke’s four losses this season, opponents shot 33-for-60 (55% 3FG) from three-point land. Michigan State does not attack the rim or shoot free throws well enough to make its living at the line (like Notre Dame did against the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament (22-for-25 FT), nor does it boast a dominate offensive inside presence. Knocking down perimeter jumpers will be crucial. Equipped with good shooters like Denzel Valentine (41% 3FG), Travis Trice (37% 3FG) and Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes (43.5% 3FG), the Spartans – which attempt 34.9 percent of all shots from behind the arc – will keep up offensively if they hit 10-plus three’s at a relatively efficient clip (~40 percent or better). Of course, Duke extends its defense and limits three-point attempts better than 90 percent of teams in college hoops – so it won’t be easy – but Michigan State moves the ball well enough to generate open looks.
  • Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn doesn’t allow Tyus Jones a repeat performance in Indy. While Jahlil Okafor (17 points) caught headlines after Duke’s 10-point victory over Michigan State in the Champions Classic, it was actually Tyus Jones – the Blue Devil point guard – who took over in the second half. The freshman scored all 17 of his points in the final 20 minutes (on just five shots), dished out four assists and suffered zero turnovers back in November. His counterpart on Saturday will be Nairn, who has provided tremendous on-ball defense since moving into the Spartans’ starting lineup in February. If the 5’11” freshman can keep Jones at bay, that will put further pressure on Okafor, Winslow and Quinn Cook to carry the load against Izzo’s confident bunch.
  • It takes care of the little things. Michigan State simply cannot afford to miss opportunities against the offensively-explosive, defensively-improved Blue Devils. Despite shooting 63.3 percent from the stripe this season, the Spartans must hit their free throws. They must do a better job taking care of the ball after coughing it up at a 20 percent clip (13 TOs) against Duke in November. They must to clean up the defensive glass and make the most of second chances on the other end. If Izzo’s group takes care of those finer details – the little things that add up over 40 minutes – it will win.
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