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Dancing with the Devil(s) in the Pale Moonlight: MSU-Duke Preview

TV: ESPN (Shulman/Vitale/Burke)
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network

This opponent requires no bulletpoints: defending national champion, consensus preseason and now unanimous #1 team in the country.  Duke comes into the Big Ten-ACC Challenge off a 6-0 start that includes three wins over major-conference foes--most notably a 14-point win over #5 Kansas State in Kansas City.  Marquette played the Blue Devils to within 5 points in the opening round of that tournament, but Duke had an 11-point lead with a minute to go in the game.

Leading scorer Jon Scheyer and leading rebounder Brian Zoubek are gone from last year's national title squad, but the team returns two stars in 6'8" senior forward Kyle Singler and 6'2" senior guard Nolan Smith.  Both are averaging over 16 points/game.  Singler's got a nice looking .500/.367/.952 (2pt/3pt/FT) shooting line, while Smith is converting 62.2% of his field goal attempts inside the arc to go with 5.7 assists/game.

Meanwhile, Mike Krzyzewski has added two instant-impact perimeter players in 6'2" freshman guard Kyrie Irving and 6'2" sophomore guard Seth Curry.  Irving was all-everything recruit who's having little trouble living up to his billing; he's averaging 14.5 points/game on a .545/.409/.923 shooting line.  And, if that's not enough, he's posted a stellar-for-a-freshman 2.5 assist/turnover ratio.  Curry-the-younger  is eligible after transferring from Liberty and sitting out a season; he's adjusted to the higher level of play very well on the outside, making 10 of 21 three-point attempts, but has struggled when forced to drive, making only 3 of 17 shots inside the arc.

Brothers Mason (6'10" sophomore) and Miles (6'10" junior) Plumlee provide the beef inside.  Mason leads the team in rebounding at 8.5/game; Miles kicks in 4.7 per game in more limited minutes.  6'11" sophomore forward Ryan Kelly (3.0 rebounds/game) and 6'4" sophomore guard Andre Dawkins (.552 from beyond the arc) round out the rotation.

The numbers above give you a sense just how good Duke has been on offense so far this season.  KenPom has them at #2 in projected adjusted offensive efficiency, reflecting a combination of how good they were last season and how good they've been so far this season.  The Blue Devils have made a whopping 44.4% of their 3-point attempts this season and a just-slightly-less-impressive 53.7% of their 2-point attempts.  They can shoot the rock.  

On the other end of the court, well, Duke is also at #2 in KenPom's projected defensive efficiency numbers.  The team's defensive profile is more balanced, ranking in the top-100 nationally in all four factors.  They've been particularly adept at forcing tough 3-point looks; opponents are shooting just 26.2% from beyond the arc.

For us Spartan types, the most frightening part of the Duke statistical profile is, of course, the team's propensity to force turnovers.  This season, opponents have turned it over on 24.2% of possessions.  That figure was lower last season at 21.3%, but historically the Blue Devils have posted defensive turnover percentages closer to 25% than to 20%.  Coach K and Tom Izzo are both man-to-man disciples, but Krzyzewski's version is much more aggressive--looking to cut off passing lanes and force the action, as contrasted with Izzo's more passive, collapsing scheme.  To put in succinctly: Duke plays the kind of defense that drives MSU crazy.

Another upshot of Duke's aggressive defensive style is that opponents don't have the luxury of setting up for a lot of 3-point looks; Duke foes consistently take less than 30% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc.  That takes away, to some extent, what's been one of MSU's few distinct strengths so far this season, as the Spartans have knocked down 39.4% of their 3-point attempts.

If there is a chink in Duke's armor, it's on the boards.  The Devils rank just 118th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and 86th in defensive rebounding percentage.  Zorbek's graduation has left a void here, particularly on the offensive end where he was a force of nature last season (21.4% individual OffReb%).  Unfortunately, MSU's rebounding ranks aren't any more impressive (#109 on offense; #165 on defense).  The defensive number is, we hope, at least partially a function of having played some very good offensive rebounding teams in South Carolina, UConn, and Washington.  Still, something is clearly amiss relative to the historically standard Spartan rebounding dominance.

Overall, Duke is clearly operating at a much more efficient level than the team that started the season ranked just below them in the polls.  To pull out a win in what will be, as always, a very hostile setting, things will really need to fall into place for MSU.  The most plausible path to a Spartan upset looks something like this:

1. MSU keeps its turnover percentage below 25%.  Anything above that and Duke will run them off the court very early.  Given the nature of the match-up, MSU isn't going to be able to eliminate turnovers, but the team does need to limit them to the purposeful variety; simple giveaways at midcourt will merely tack on points to what's already a double-digit expected point differential for Duke.  Chances are it's going to take the younger MSU players (plus Korie Lucious) some time to adjust to the intensity of the environment, both off the court and on it.  That means MSU's two proven playmakers, Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green, may need to take things into their own hands early and create some offense going toward the rim.

Yesterday, I claimed to be agnostic on the question of whether Draymond should start or come off the bench.  Today, I have a firm opinion: He should start tomorrow night to help avoid an early turnover bonanza for the Blue Devils.  (One other lineup opinion: I love the guy, but I really don't see Austin Thornton doing well in this match-up.  Play Mike Kebler a little if you need a body, but otherwise it's on the Lucas/Summers/Lucious/Appling group to play nearly all the minutes on the perimeter.)

2. MSU wins the rebounding battle convincingly.  Given that MSU is almost certain to give up multiple possessions in the turnover battle, earning some second-chance points, and preventing Duke from doing the same, will be imperative to keeping the scoring opportunities roughly equal.  Green is even more likely to be used in a playmaking capacity in this game, so it's up to Delvon Roe and Garrick Sherman to hold their own inside against the Plumlee boys--and then some.  (10 minutes of Derrick Nix banging around in the paint should help, too.)  Durrell Summers may have a tough time finding clean looks against the Duke defense; putting some energy into crashing the offensive glass against the (generally) smaller Blue Devil guards would be a worthwhile alternative investment.

3. Duke goes cold (at least relatively speaking) from 3-point range.  This is, of course, the great hope of all underdogs going into a match-up with Duke.  Given the nature of the MSU defense, Duke is very likely to take 20-25 three-point shots tomorrow night.  If they make 40% of those attempts, I have a hard time seeing MSU playing with a high enough level of efficiency to keep up on the other end of the court.  Take that percentage down to 35% or below, and maybe it's a ballgame.

On a final tactical note, Rexrode has this cryptic note in a blog post that went up tonight:

Speaking of MSU-Duke, Kyrie Irving has the attention of the Spartans. Korie Lucious is excited about getting to check Irving. Lucious and Kalin Lucas looked good in practice Monday, no hobbling and full participation. And Delvon Roe -- who will see a lot of Kyle Singler on Wednesday (more on that Wednesday) -- checked Durrell Summers for a while and actually did a pretty good job.

Based on the minutes-played numbers, it looks like Duke goes small (three guards, Singler, and a big guy) and big (Singler at the 3 with two bigs) in fairly equal chunks of time.  I assume the idea is that MSU would rather have a guard (Summers?) chasing Singler around the perimeter, which would mean moving a big man onto a Duke guard when the Blue Devils go small.  I'm more than a little skeptical, though, that Roe can keep up with an athletic guard who appears to shoot the ball quite proficiently.  My inclination would be to put a big on Singler and force him to drive; he wasn't all that efficient inside the arc last season (.424) and doesn't pass the ball with great frequency (1.0 assist/game this season; 2.4 last season).  I suppose I'll defer to Tom Izzo's judgment, though.

KenPom predicts an 80-67 win for Duke in 72 possessions, giving MSU just a 13% chance of winning.  In my 3+ seasons of basketball blogging, I don't think I've ever made a statement like this going into a game: I will consider it a moral victory if MSU keeps the game within a single-digit deficit for 40 minutes.  On paper, the Spartans have the personnel to match up with Duke, but so far that personnel just hasn't gelled for any considerable length of time.  MSU's one quality win (vs. Washington) was earned on the backs of two players.

Things will, we assume, start coming together at some point for this MSU team.  Durham would be an ideal, but somewhat unlikely, place for that to happen.