1. Give me a rundown of the season. Duke got off to a great start, but the injury to Ryan Kelly resulted in some losses. Was there a worry he wouldn't come back? Have expectations changed since he has returned?
Duke's non-conference season was much better than any reasonable fan might have expected. The Atlantis tourney in particular (where they beat Minnesota, VCU, and Louisville) was eyebrow raising in a good way. Fans bemoaned the short bench (as usual) but the reality was our 5 starters were good enough to carry the scoring load. The most significant difference from the previous season, however, was the high quality defense Duke was playing.
Ryan Kelly's injury derailed all that, making Duke vulnerable - especially on the road. Because information was so limited, there was absolutely some fear in the first few weeks that he might not come back (or not come back soon enough to get reintegrated for post season play). When he finally came back in such dramatic fashion against Miami the pendulum probably swung too far in relief initially. Plenty of fans thought Duke was 'back' to to early season form.
This Duke team has the parts to win another championship, no question, but I think the likelihood of that rests more in regaining their stellar defensive play - which sadly for MSU fans was in full effect vs Creighton. (Duke held the best FG and 3pt FG% team in the country to season lows)
2. How has Kelly as an individual player been since coming back from his injury? His first game against Miami was great, but seems to have trailed off by then.
Kelly won the game in a performance for the ages vs Miami (36 pts, 7-9 from 3, 7 reb). But he has largely looked more like a guy who missed close to 2 months, since that monster game. He is shooting 2-17 from distance since then and 21% from the field in his last 5 games. He has found other ways to contribute, but his value (especially pre-injury) was largely about the mismatch he presented on the offensive end.
In his defense (pun intended) Ryan has transformed himself over the years into a very, very good defender. For someone as un-fleet of foot as he is, he has a big impact on Duke's team defense. But the Devils are not in the title-favorite conversation with a mediocre version of Kelly.
3. The offense has been one of the best in the nation. What makes it so good? Is it the ability to score inside and out? Is it the multitude of weapons?
I would say its two things that are both pretty rare in college basketball: 1) Mason Plumlee can get points as a true low-post scorer. 2) Duke has five starters who have each led the team in scoring at some point this year. Until this year Mason was not a reliable scoring threat one on one - made less so by his terrible free throw shooting. Starting with the post-season banquet speech last year, he has been on a mission to flip that script and largely he has.
But the reason Duke's offense is so efficient is that (with the good Kelly) they have 4 shooters to surround Plumlee who can all be dangerous. You can't zone 'em, and you can't help off anyone in particular. I would add you can't have a conversation about the Devil's offense without giving some props to Seth Curry, who has made himself a much more dangerous by becoming a slithery scorer instead of just a shooter.
4. Defensively, this team is pretty good, but the Devils are quite low in offensive and defensive rebounding rate. Even Kelly's individual numbers aren't great. Is this a spot where MSU will need to take advantage in order to win?
Aside from the surprising 2010 Championship team, I am hard pressed to think of Duke team in my time of following them closely that could list rebounding as a team strength. From a philosophical standpoint, Coach K has been more willing to offset those possessions lost on the boards with defensive pressure and turnovers. The Devils are 29-5 this year and had more offensive rebounds only 10 times and actually won the battle of the boards 13 times. That includes cream puff games.
But to answer the question, Yes. Rebounding should be a primary ingredient for MSU's recipe to beat this Duke team. Sparty especially needs to hit the offensive boards - Duke's first shot defense is generally very good but defensive rebounding is always a bit of an adventure.
5. What are three keys to victory for Duke in this one?
Duke's biggest weaknesses are to dribble penetration and overall rebounding. I'm not sure how much Michigan State can/will hurt Duke with the former, but for the Devils to win they can't get killed on the glass. So that would be one key - don't lose the rebounding battle by more than 8ish (including don't give up double digit offensive boards).
Second, shoot 35% or better from distance. As team Duke is shooting better than 40% for the season (though Kelly's struggles lately have been noted) but in their losses they are 28/112 (25%) from three. It's a big part of virtually any Duke team, and points are going to be at a premium, so Duke will have to hit the open looks they get. MSU will give us at least a few right? Right? Please?
Third, is the X-factor for Duke: Rasheed Sulaimon. It might be easier to talk about Duke's thin front line managing to stay out of foul trouble, but the thing that consistently happens in Duke wins is Sulaimon scoring. Fans can reasonably hope for a good performance from the Devil's three seniors (paging Ryan Kelly) but when Sulaimon is assertive on the offensive end, Duke is just really hard to defend.
6. What is the Duke perception of the MSU program? Is it considered one of the bluebloods or elite programs? A notch below? If so, what will it take to get to that next level?
I'm not a radio guy who talks to lots and lots of fans. So I can only speak for myself and the circle I run with here. MSU as a program may not quite be uber-elite, but that feels more like a perceived question about longevity or that dreaded word 'tradition'. Izzo is most definitely among the uber-elite coaches in basketball, which is the biggest influence of a program's status. I have nothing but the greatest respect for him and how he always seems to maximize potential, especially in tournament play.
From a Duke/ACC mindset MSU would probably need to win another championship to break through that glass ceiling (if there is one?). Also in today's basketball climate, getting the uber-elite high schoolers also affects the value of a program - which is as much about winning the ever-growing publicity cycle as it is about getting the talent. I would say MSU might also be perceived a notch below there (and that's not solely based on the battle for Jabari Parker - who was a huge relief for Duke fans given the many, many swings and misses Coach K has had in the last 6-7 years) But for my money, Michigan State would trail only Duke, UNC and Kentucky right now for "franchise value", and Tom Izzo would be at the top of the list of coaches I would want my kid to play for.
7. Give me a score prediction and why
So... I have a terrible track record with specific predictions. I also hate predictions in general - count me in the adherents of the Jay Bilas "Team X will win if..." school of prognostication. Pre-Kelly-Injury Duke was a really good team that was one of the first names you would have to say when picking a champ. But we haven't put all the pieces of that team together on the floor for one game since Kelly's return. So it's probably unfair to think that with 4 more days of practice that it will magically appear.
In my personal bracket I picked MSU to win - thereby choosing the "happy either way" scenario. (thought not equal amounts of happiness) I expect a close game in the 60's. If Duke has an advantage it's that they have 3 seniors who are their best players - so you like that in a tight matchup. But I don't have much faith in Plumlee staying out of foul trouble, and I would probably be more surprised by a Duke win than a loss.
Thanks again to Alex for taking the time to answer some questions. Check out Blue vs. Blue for all things Duke (and UNC, but you probably don't care about that)