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MSU Basketball Preview: ACC-Big Ten Challenge — #5 Duke

The Spartans’ whirlwind early-season schedule concludes with a trip to Cameron Indoor Arena.

NCAA Basketball: William & Mary at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

As always, Michigan State has put themselves in harms way with a brutal early season schedule. So far the results have been less than desired but far from expected. MSU sits at 4-3 with all three of its losses come to ranked opponents in Arizona, Kentucky and Baylor.

Their last chance to steal a big win before Big Ten season comes on the road against #5 Duke as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Luckily for MSU, the Dookies are banged up and may be down as many as four players heading into Tuesday night’s matchup.

Let’s get to know the gentlemen of Tobacco Road...

The Basics

NCAA Basketball: Appalachian State at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The Numbers

  • Record: 6-1
  • Best Win: vs #21 Rhode Island (Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament)
  • Worst Loss: vs #7 Kansas (Champion’s Classic — its their only loss, soooo)

Last Five Games

  • 11/26 — vs Appalachian State W 93-58
  • 11/23 — vs William & Mary W 88-67
  • 11/20 — vs #21 Rhode Island W 75-65 (Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament)
  • 11/19 — vs Penn State W 78-68 (Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament)
  • 11/15 — vs #7 Kansas L 75-77 (Champion’s Classic)

Blue Devils To Know

  • F Luke Kennard (6’6” 202, Soph) — 17.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.9 APG, 39.5% 3PT
  • G Grayson Allen (6’5” 202, Jr) — 16.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 30.6% 3PT
  • F Amile Jefferson (6’9” 224, Sr) — 13.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 65.5% FG

Duke’s 2015 ended in a Sweet 16 loss to eventual Final Four participant Oregon and their 2016 began with a loss to another top team in #7 Kansas. As L’s go, catching a two-pointer to a program like Bill Self’s is as “good” as it gets, especially considering the Devil’s were playing so shorthanded (more on that in a bit). Even with the loss, Duke is once again a powerhouse and, once again, they are led by preseason Player of the Year, Grayson Allen.

Allen took his game to a new level last year and became on of the leading men along with Brandon Ingram, averaging 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game all while shooting 41.7% from thee-point range. His numbers are down a bit this year (most notably his shooting percentage from deep) but he finds himself on a much more balanced team, even with the roster not completely healthy.

Helping Allen shoulder the load are freshman guard Frank Jackson (16.0 ppg, 38.2% 3PT) and sophomore forward Luke Kennard, who is looking like one of the most improved players in the country. No longer having to share looks with Ingram, Kennard has increased his scoring by by almost six points a game and is averaging nearly double the amount of rebounds he grabbed last season. MSU will have to slow down one of (or preferably both) Kennard and Jackson if they want to keep Duke from ringing up a whole lot of points.

In the frontcourt, Amile Jefferson is making the most of the playing time opened up by injuries (I promise we’ll talk about these). The tenth, excuse me, fifth-year senior is averaging a career high in points and almost 10 rebounds in the early going. At 6’9” he will pose a challenge for MSU’s bigs on the glass.

Ok, lets talk about those injuries shall we.

Dinged Up Devils

NCAA Basketball: Marist at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Duke came into the season as the top-ranked team in the nation for a reason — they are both absurdly talented and unfairly deep. But take a deep breath, the Spartans will (luckily) not have to face them in full force. Injuries have taken a major bite out of Duke’s depth, most notably in the frontcourt. Check out the big names bound to the bench...


  • F Harry Giles (6’10” 240, Fr) — #2 Overall Recruit in 2016 Rivals 150
  • F Jayson Tatum (6’8” 205, Fr) — #3 Overall Recruit in 2016 Rivals 150
  • F Marques Bolden (6’11” 245, Fr) — #11 Overall Recruit in 2016 Rivals 150


  • G Grayson Allen (Toe)

And you thought MSU’s injuries were bad! Coach K has said this is as banged up a team as he as ever coached and for just moment you almost start to feel for Duke until you remember — it’s Duke and none of these guys are done for the season. But for now the Devils are down three members of their #1 recruiting class from a year ago and their National Player of the Year candidate. That is not ideal.

The Spartans dare not complain, however. After the injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, Tom Izzo’s team has predictably struggled in the rebounding department, having to resort to 6’6” former walk-on Kenny Goins and 6’8” true freshman Nick Ward to do most of their work. As of now Goins is the starter but Ward appears to be far ahead of expectations and MSU’s best long-term starting option. We’ll see if Izzo makes that change soon.

Oh and that other guy, Allen. Yeah missing him is quite a big deal. The junior injured his toe recently and wasn’t able to return to his last game. Even with scorers like Jackson and Kennard, losing one of the best guards in the country is not going to be easy to overcome. He may give it a go, but even if he does he won’t be at 100%. The other Blue Devils are good, and it’s nigh impossible for MSU to win at Cameron Indoor, but these injuries certainly help even the odds.

How Does MSU Match Up?

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Wichita State vs Michigan State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Starters

Top Bench Players

DISCLAIMER: This is assuming Grayson Allen does not attempt to play through his toe injury. Total speculation but, when healthy, Duke is the odds-on favorite to win the National Championship. Getting their best player healthy is more important than a non-conference game that they can probably win without him.

As usual size is going to be a problem. Even without those three freshmen big men the Blue Devils’ playing group features four players 6’9” or taller. Seeing as Nick Ward and Miles Bridges are MSU’s only two players over 6’7”, that’s an issue. If MSU can’t at least compete on the glass it might not matter whether Allen is playing or not because Jackson, Kennard and Matt Jones don’t miss many second opportunities. Ward, Goins and Bridges are going to have to do some heavy lifting on the glass.

Offensively, the story of the season is that this team goes as Bridges and, to a larger extent, Eron Harris go. The last two games are case and point. In the win over Wichita State the duo combined for 34 points on 61% shooting (45% from deep), in the loss to Baylor, 18 points on 40% shooting (22% from deep) and that was with going 7/11 from the field. Until Josh Langford gets going, McQuaid finds consistency with his shot and/or Cassius Winston defends well enough to play 20 minutes a game, these two have to score efficiently and en masse in order for MSU to win. That will be especially important tonight when facing a team the caliber of Duke.

I would expect Duke to try and run a little more than normal to avoid having to run too much set offense. With so many missing pieces guys are playing out of position and may not know the sets as well. That leads to a lot of iso ball which only Jackson can claim as a strong suit and plays into MSU’s hands a bit. The fewer sets the better chance MSU has to compete on the boards and if they can do that and be efficient from beyond the three-point line, they can hang around.


With Allen, Giles, Tatum and Bolden all out, this is as good a time to catch Duke as there will be this season. They still have a size advantage, but MSU matches up fairly well 1-4. Jefferson may give Bridges some trouble with his length and senior experience, which makes Harris’s offense even more important. The Spartans can’t afford off nights from either of their big time scorers and need a third to emerge to win.

They could pull this upset or be overwhelmed by the stage and talent and lose by 20. Unfortunately, I’m leaning towards the latter. First, Coach K has some sort of spell cast on Izzo which seemingly prevents him from ever winning against Duke. Second, the Devils still have a roster-wide size advantage and, most importantly, this is the end of a brutal stretch of travel and competition for this young Spartan team. They’ve played in Hawaii, New York, the Bahamas and now North Carolina in an 18 day stretch. If they look tired, you know why and you can’t blame them.

MSU’s youngsters put up a fight and keep it close for longer than expected but the jet lag catches up and Duke pulls away late. Coach K’s hex on Izzo continues.

Duke 71 MSU 64