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The Devils and the Details - MSU Duke Preview

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Is MSU an elite basketball program? Their Wikipedia page says they are so it must be true, right? Heck, according to Sports Illustrated the Spartans had already achieved that status in 2001, when they made their third consecutive Final Four™. For those with a more economic bent, MSU is part of Nike's 'Elite' franchise, schools for whom they've designed a special category of uniforms. But Tom Izzo, as he has in the past, would probably hesitate to put Michigan State in that exalted group just yet. When asked prior to the 2010 Final Four™ matchup with Butler if MSU was a "blueblood" program Izzo replied that "I don’t know what constitutes that," and went on to say that he doesn’t believe "we’ve earned the right to be in that group yet." Since they went on to lose to Butler and followed that up with, well, last season, this assessment seems unlikely to have changed.

So what would have to happen for MSU to be considered in the company of Duke and North Carolina? Well, beating them once in a while would be a pretty good start. Unfortunately the Spartans may be losing ground in that department. Friday's loss to North Carolina in the Carrier Classic was the sixth loss in a row to the Tar Heels and waiting in the wings is Duke, which sports an 8-2 record against the Spartans, including no regular season losses since 1958.

These may not be the Blue Devils of yore, however, or even the Blue Devils of the last two years. Though, as usual, highly ranked, they have a few question marks hovering about them, which their first game did nothing to dispel. They were taken to the wire in a one-point home win over up-and-coming-but-still-mid-major Belmont University of the Atlantic Sun conference. They had a far easier time beating the stuffing out of the Blue Hose of Presbyterian College, who haven't had a winning record (or a team turnover percentage below 20%) since joining Division I in 2007.

This will be the second game in a row for the Spartans in which the game itself will be something of a sidelight, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski takes his first crack at passing Bobby Knight as the winningest coach in Division I. After the jump is a preview I wrote of this game that was destined for the by-now-familiar publication that was never published. It still holds up pretty well, but in a more contemporary vein, Branden Dawson is expected to play after injuring his knee in the Carrier Classic game. He's been somewhat limited in practice and how his playing time will be affected remains to be seen. Also of interest will be the point guard position. Although the Big Ten Geeks thought that none of the point guard candidates "played well, or even looked like a point guard" against North Carolina, most observers weren't quite so pessimistic. In fact, Izzo is now talking about playing Travis Trice and Keith Appling together for stretches, which would put Appling at his more natural two-guard postion during those minutes.

Duke Blue Devils
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski - Record: 827-225 with Duke, 900-284 for his career
Last year: 32-5 overall, 13-3 in the ACC

Top three returning players:
Stats from Ken Pomeroy($)

Michigan State will take on Duke in the first game of the inaugural Champions Classic, an event created by ESPN to showcase the start of the college basketball season. Over the three years of the event MSU, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky will each play one game against the other three. The event kicks off in Madison Square Garden. Neither the Garden nor the Duke Blue Devils have been kind to Michigan State recently. Syracuse soundly defeated the Spartans last year at the Garden, less than a week after Duke beat them in Durham. This game gives Michigan State an early shot at redemption.

Duke has its usual impressive credentials (ranked 5th in an early ESPN preseason poll), but this team will be somewhat more of a mystery than previous Blue Devil squads. They lost a significant portion of their offense in the departures of Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving and, although they return some excellent players and add some new ones, most notably top-ranked recruit Austin Rivers, it's not yet clear just how dominant Duke will be this year.

Ryan Kelly

Ryan Kelly dunks against Presbyterian

Duke's clearest strength is their guards, as Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Rivers should become one of the best-shooting backcourts in the nation. Dawkins and Curry combined to shoot a sizzling 43% from beyond the arc last year and expectations are extremely high for Rivers, the son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. The three Plumlee brothers (Miles, Mason and Marshall) should give them a significant inside presence as well. Mason was one of the national leaders in defensive rebounding percentage at 24% and he was no slouch on the offensive glass either at 11.1%. But it's going to be hard to replace players as productive as the trio Duke lost.

Austin Rivers

Newcomer Austin Rivers

When the Spartans last met the Blue Devils in December of last year they hung in surprisingly well against the top-ranked team, despite committing 20 turnovers. But in the end they were unable to overcome a scintillating 31-point performance by Irving and lost 84-79 to drop their all time record against Duke to a dismal 2-8.

There's no more Kyrie Irving to contend with (he left to become the first overall pick in the draft) but plenty of challenges remain. For starters Duke plays excellent and often underrated defense. They've been in the top 20 of Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings every year since 2003 ($)). Coach Mike Krzyzewski's trademark is contesting the three-point shot and opponents only hit them at a 32.4% rate last year. Duke's defenders were even better inside the arc, allowing a 43.1% success rate, 18th best in the nation. Beating Duke often requires extra passes and cuts to the basket for layups or fouls. None of this was a particular strength of Michigan State last year as the Spartans were below average in both 2-point shooting and getting to the line.

On offense Duke looks to be lethal from 3-point range. Once again this is not a good matchup for the Spartans who allowed opponents to shoot 36% on threes last year. If they try to extend their defense Duke has a lot of size inside to punish them – Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Miles Plumlee are all listed at 6'10" while freshman Marshall Plumlee is 6'11".

Can Michigan State do it? Of course, but it may require a combination of patience, passing and accuracy. Duke contests shots but doesn't normally force a lot of turnovers. Draymond Green could be a key here, as they will need his passing skills, inside presence and experience to break down the Duke defense and get good looks. If they can hold the Duke backcourt to a merely mortal shooting performance they could leave the Garden in a much better mood than last year.