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Hoops preview: Duke

Tonight is one of the Spartans' biggest non-conference games of the year - a contest against #4 Duke in the Champions Classic.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Game Time: 7:00 PM EST
Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN

Spartan Sports Network
SBN Duke Blog:
The Duke Basketball Report

If it feels like Michigan State has a rough time with the Duke Blue Devils, it's because they do.  From the non-competitive 2003 rout at the Breslin to the 2013 tournament game where Duke defeated a more talented Spartan squad, Coach K and gang have had Coach Izzo's number.  Tonight is one of the toughest tests in some time.  Both teams lost around half of their minutes from last season, but Duke added an almost criminal recruiting class of four 5-star players: C Jahlil Okafor, PG Tyus Jones, F Justice Winslow, and WG Grayson Allen.  All four are averaging double-digits in their two opening laughers.  The freshmen are joined in key roles by senior Quinn Cook who has 15.5 ppg and leading rebounder 6'9" junior Amile Jefferson.  Overall, this is a roster with 9 McDonalds All-Americans.

As the #4 team in the nation, the Blue Devils should be excellent.  However, it's hard to get a feel for how good they are right now.  Their two opponents have put up little resistance, and Duke is averaging 63% from the floor and 111 ppg.  Both of those numbers will come down, but how fast?  They do have a strength where MSU is struggling.  Allen, Winslow, Jones, and Cook can all hit threes (16/30 as a unit).  Even against modest competition, the Spartans have struggled in preventing open perimeter shots as their defense is far from where it needs to be.

Does Duke have weaknesses?  Much has been written about how awful the Duke interior defense was last year.  Their lack of depth and size sometimes forced power forwards to guard opposing teams' centers.  Despite that fix attempt, the 2013-2014 Blue Devils ranked 11th in the ACC in DReb %, 13th in opponents' 2PT %, and 13th in Block %.  Coach K says this squad is able to defend in a way his teams have not in some time but the opposition of Fairfield and Presbyterian has not put that to the test.  Beyond "believe when we see it" defensive questions, if there is a vulnerability to Duke, their youth and inexperience might be it.  Despite their pedigrees, a key portion of this team is only playing their third regular season college basketball game.  How will they react to the pressure and spotlight of a marquee game against a ranked opponent?  Even if this isn't a banner roster, Michigan State is a leap above their prior competition.

Which brings us to the Spartans.  Part of this game will be a battle not just against Duke but against themselves.  Injuries and stagnation have already compromised this team.  Bryn Forbes shooting has left him with the addition of a brace to protect an ailing hand.  Alvin Ellis is unlikely to play as he recovers from an ankle injury.  Branden Dawson looked like himself against Navy.  Unfortunately, that meant a player who was unstoppable in stretches before disappearing.  Our centers are still prone to foul trouble and that was against average post players.

Travis Trice was your conference player of the week and his reliable, steady presence will be absolutely vital.  It's fair to say that Tyus Jones has played few point guards as experienced as Trice in his young basketball career.  Trice needs to win this matchup for MSU.  Also, a lot has been made about a confrontation between Dawson and the super-athletic Winslow, but MSU might be forced into a mismatch when Winslow, Jefferson, and Okafor play together as the standard lineup.  MSU is not equipped to guard a 6'6" wing, 6'9" forward, and 6'11" center.  With Ellis out, how does MSU counter that?  Can they play Forbes, Dawson, and Costello against that trio, or does Coach Izzo do something drastic like pair Costello and Schilling, or insert Marvin Clark and slide Dawson to the wing?  With injuries and Izzo's history of worrying more about matching his opponent than exploiting contrasts, some experimentation might be part of the plan.  Regardless of the approach, we're going to be significantly out-sized.

Let's be real with each other: it's going to take some magic to keep this game tight.  The MSU upperclassmen need to be the best possible version of themselves.  Matt Costello in particular should find some Abraham Erskine serum or at least an emboldening spirit to stand up to Jahlil Okafor and make him work on both ends.  If Costello and Schilling look tentative and start picking up fouls, the big man from Chicago might end up eating a Wollenman burger with a small slice of Marvin Clark.  Denzel Valentine must prove that his false start against Navy was a hiccup towards a breakout junior year.


Hoping for the planets to align is too much.  This undermanned MSU squad is at a rough point with injuries and uncertainties.  Duke has too much talent, size, and shooting to do anything but run away with this one.
Duke 86, Michigan State 61.