The Spartans are Elite for the 10th time in the last 20 years. That of course puts them one game away from their eighth Final Four under Tom Izzo. Standing in the way is their longtime and constant nemesis, Duke. The matchup we all saw down the road the day the brackets were released is now upon us. So let’s get a look at these guys and see how to beat them.
School: Duke University
Nickname: Blue Devils
Location: Durham, North Carolina
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski
Coach K, the all-time leader in NCAA Tournament wins, Final Four appearances, and second all-time in championships, will be the task at hand for MSU on Sunday. His 11-1 mark against Tom Izzo is also of note. But these are all things we know, so let’s get into the details of this current Duke squad.
Duke checks in at fourth overall in the KenPom ranks as of now, one spot behind MSU. The Blue Devils had been top three for the whole year up until their narrow escape against UCF last weekend. They are top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency, checking in at seventh for both.
They are an up tempo team, the 19th highest tempo in the country, and 14th fastest team on offense. Defensively they are right at the national average.
Checking in on the four factors on offense, Duke is 53rd in eFG% and 14th in offensive rebounding. They turn the ball over less than the national average, and they are slightly above average in getting to the free throw line.
Going in deeper we see that Duke is the fourth best team in the country in two-point field goal percentage…and 329th in three-point shooting. They are also 251st in free throw percentage, shooting just 68.7% as a team at the charity stripe.
As you would imagine from those shooting numbers, the Blue Devils get the bulk of their points inside the arc. They get almost 56% of their scoring from two-point shots, 21st most in the country.
Also interesting to note, Duke is just slightly above the national average in assist percentage as a team.
On the defensive side Duke holds teams to the ninth best eFG% in the country, and they keep teams off the free throw line. They are above average at forcing turnovers, but struggle on the defensive glass, allowing offensive rebounds on almost 30% of their opponents misses.
Duke is top-20 in opponent two and three-point shooting. And they are third in the country in block rate and fourth in the country in steal percentage. Basically, they are tall, athletic, lengthy, and quick.
Not unlike MSU, Duke is not a very deep team. They get just 28.3% of their minutes from the bench, 227th in the country in that department.
Players to Watch
As you might expect from a Duke team, they are loaded with talent. They very well may have the first two players taken in the draft as well as a third first round pick in their usual starting five.
Zion Williamson the guy everyone knows. He’s a beast and there is just no way around that. He’s 6-7 and 285 pounds and he is just as impressive as everyone said he was.
Zion averages 22.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game. He is shooting over 75% on his two-point shots, fourth best in the country. Oh and he can step out and knock down a three, shooting 33.8% on the season but is at 45.5% in the NCAA Tournament.
The only real hole in his game, if you want to call it that, is that he is just a 64.6% shooter at the free throw line, and he is at just 50% in the tournament.
After Zion it is RJ Barrett, the 6-7 freshman who also averages better than 20 points per game. Barrett stuffs the stat sheet as well with 22.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. Barrett is a 53.3% shooter inside the arc, but just 30.3% beyond it, despite having jacked up 231 attempts from deep.
Barrett is also not a great foul shooter at 66.5 percent.
The next player is a question mark for Sunday and that is Cam Reddish. The 6-8 freshman sat out the win over Virginia Tech with a knee sprain, putting his status for Sunday in doubt as well. Reddish is averaging 13.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. He has the most made three-pointers for Duke with 87, but has shot just 33.3% from the long line.
Reddish is the best free throw shooter of the regular starters, at 76.8 percent.
Duke was able to overcome the absence of Reddish, thanks to some big shooting from freshman guard Tre Jones. The 6-2 guard who normally averages 9.5 points per game went for 22 against VaTech, including making 5-of-7 threes. This from a guy shooting 26.5 percent from three on the season with only 22 made threes all year.
Jones does lead the team in assists at 5.3 per game, and he’s averaging nearly two steals per game as well.
Those are the big four for Duke and they pretty much do the majority of everything for this team. Marques Bolden, a 6-11 junior can come in, block some shots, crash the offensive glass, and chip in 5.4 points. Alex O’Connell is a three-point threat off the bench at 37.5 percent and got the start last night with Reddish out.
Duke is very similar statistically to the team that the Spartans just faced, LSU. The Blue Devils are a bad three-point team, but they are good inside the arc, they can get steals, crash the offensive glass, but aren’t great on the defensive boards.
MSU took advantage of that against LSU grabbing 15 offensive rebounds, almost 43% of their misses.
The Spartans also took care of the ball for the most part, turning it over just seven times, although several of those went for easy baskets the other way, which is something they will really want to avoid this time around.
Duke is long and athletic, even more so than LSU. That is what they do, they win by just being better athletes than you and making the individual plays you can’t make or match up with.
If Cam Reddish is out it does change things for Duke, and it forces them to dip in deeper to a relatively short roster. Despite his mediocre numbers, Reddish is still a threat to stretch the floor and knock down some threes. He’s also pretty solid defensively, especially with the steals.
But Duke has the one thing you really can’t game plan against, a unicorn of a player and absolute freak in Zion Williamson. If you watched the UCF game you saw Zion basically single-handedly win the game for Duke. This is a guy you can’t really defend. So maybe you don’t try to.
I have thought that the best strategy for MSU might be to just let Zion eat, obviously try and slow him down, but not commit too much effort into it, and shut down everyone else. Tre Jones was the difference in the game against VaTech because he was wide open. We saw similar looks for Duke from the outside against UCF last weekend.
Yeah, the Duke players aren’t great three-point shooters, but if you leave them wide open, they are going to make shots.
So maybe the strategy is force Zion to beat you by himself, which he might be capable of. But that might be better off than trying to stop him, when you really can’t, and getting beat by the supporting cast anyway.
Bottom line, this MSU team is equipped to beat this Duke team. Whether they can, we will have to wait and see. But they might be the team with the best chance to take them out that is left. These Spartans are mentally tough, and not afraid. They have taken on every challenge that has come their way. This will be a big one, but not impossible.
The Final Four is one game away. Let’s keep this train rolling into Minneapolis.