Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is trying to play coy that his team was not a Final Four contender from the start.
True, this was a Blue Devils team that lost three of six during a stretch in January, including a loss to Miami at home. But this was also a preseason top-four team that only solidified those credentials with 10-point wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin by early December, both away from Durham.
“I don't know who expected us to be here,” Krzyzewski said. “We have eight guys and four freshmen. I think at times you expect a program to be here instead of looking at a team.”
That’s not entirely true, but if Krzyzewski is going to try to play up the underdog card, he’s going to have a tough time pulling it against Michigan State.
Last year’s Spartans team was the one that seemed preordained to go to the Final Four. Every senior who played four years for Tom Izzo to that point had reached the Final Four, and Izzo had two seniors who had never been to the Final Four.
The trend ended with Adreian Payne and Keith Appling reaching merely the Elite Eight. This team lost Payne, Appling and Gary Harris and lost five games before the new year, including a home game against Texas Southern.
Nevertheless, Michigan State has put it together in the last few weeks and now the Spartans are where they’d be expected to be many years — in the Final Four.
“Maybe it wasn't as expected — we had a little rougher run during the year,” Izzo said. “When you get your program to a certain level, I think that's our expectations, that's what we want our kids' expectations, the media and fans.”
No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Duke
Time: 6:09 p.m. ET, Saturday
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill
Line: Duke by 5
Matchup to Watch: Michigan State’s Travis Trice vs. Duke’s Quinn Cook
This is a question of which senior guard is going to get baskets at critical times. Of course, this is a more pressing matchup for Trice, who does not have the luxury of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow (though Spartans Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson are very good). Trice is averaging 19.8 points per game in the tournament (more than four points better than his season average). Cook is averaging 14.5 points per game in the Tournament and hitting 12-of-14 from the free throw line in the last two games.
Player on the Spot: Duke’s Jahlil Okafor
Opponents in the regional did a good job of containing the damage from Okafor. Mind you, that’s at the expense of Winslow having his way on both ends of the court against Utah and Gonzaga. Okafor scored a combined 15 points in two games last week and shot 7-of-16 from the field. Okafor averaged 17.5 points and shot nearly 67 percent during the season. He’ll need to approach that if Duke is going to win a title.
Trending: Michigan State’s free throw shooting
The Spartans free throw shooting was the weak link during the season, and history suggests that it will bite them during the Tournament. Yet Michigan State recently found its stride at the line. The Spartans hit 6-of-6 free throws in crunch time against Oklahoma and then went 15-of-20 against Louisville. Michigan State shoots 63.2 percent from the line this season, ranking 338th overall.
Number of Note: 22-to-6
Justise Winslow has raised his game during the NCAA Tournament, but let’s not overlook point guard Tyus Jones. The freshman has 22 assists and six turnovers during the Tournament. He’s averaging 3.7 assists per turnover in the last four games compared to 2.8 during the regular season. He’s also thrown in two steals per game in the Tourney.
Michigan State will win if...
Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello play out of their minds against Okafor. Michigan State’s big men aren’t the first names anyone considers when it comes the Spartans this season. Now, they’re in the critical spot against Okafor. Can they contain him like Utah and Gonzaga did and can they get some baskets agains Okafor’s suspect defense? Michigan State needs that to pull the upset.
Duke will win if...
Michigan State’s time is up. The Spartans are a great story and deserve credit for beating the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the East region. But this is a No. 7 seed that didn’t hit its potential until late in the year. Duke perhaps hasn’t played its best game of the Tournament and still ended up beating Gonzaga by 14, outscoring the Bulldogs 21-10 in the final 10 minutes.
Athlon Sports Staff Predictions
David Fox: Duke 70-61
Braden Gall: Duke 78-62
Mitch Light: Duke 68-57
Jake Rose: Duke 73-70