After dismantling a very strong LSU team on Friday night, the path doesn’t get any easier for the Spartans come Sunday. Michigan State is set to battle it out with Coach K and Duke for a spot in next weekend’s Final Four in Minneapolis. This could be the most dangerous Duke starting-five in recent memory, hence all the hype we’ve been hearing the past few months. Three different Blue Devils could be drafted in the top 5, depending on what mock drafts you put stock into.
Clearly, there is no question that Duke is very talented; however, their talent-level is very top-heavy. The Blue Devils are a very thin team, usually playing just with just 7-man rotations. Additionally, there is a major drop-off after the four 5-star freshmen (Williamson, Barrett, Reddish, and Jones). If Cam Reddish is indeed unable to play come Sunday, then Duke is dangerously thin at the wing.
In addition to Duke’s roster structure, they also have a few in-game weakness as well. Our very own Matt Hoeppner offered some in-depth, statistical breakdowns of their weaknesses in this piece. The basic takeaways are that Duke struggles mightily from beyond the arc and from the free throw line, while also being a below-average defensive rebounding team.
Enter seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins.
McQuaid and Goins allow Tom Izzo to boast an upperclassmen-heavy starting lineup for the first time in a while. Them being seniors isn’t the reason why they’ll be the most important players in the game, though. That label is due to them aligning against Duke’s aforementioned strengths and weaknesses.
Three-Point Shooting Story-line
Everyone knows by now that Duke is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the nation. The Blue Devils rank 330th out of 361 D1 basketball teams in three-point percentage, while MSU ranks 26th. Spartan fans have seen them shoot lights-out from time-to-time this season and will be hoping for more of that on Sunday night. In order to take advantage of this mismatch of strengths though, the Spartans are going to have to rely on McQuaid and Goins to get going from long-range.
Let’s start with McQuaid. While he is shooting 33% from three this tournament, he hasn’t scored more than 10 points since he went off for that 27-point performance against Michigan in Chicago earlier this month. You could argue that he didn’t need to do more than he did against LSU thanks to Gabe Brown’s emergence, but he will almost certainly be needed against a top 10 Duke defense.
Similarly, Kenny Goins has only shot 4/19 from three-point range in the NCAA tournament so far. It looked like he was trending back up after the Minnesota game where he shot 2/4 from three, but then he went 2/8 against LSU and his recent slump is worrisome once again. On the positive side of things. Goins taking 8 attempts from three last game shows that his struggles haven’t changed his approach or willingness to shoot. If he keeps shooting, the lid will have to come off the basket eventually.
The Spartans cannot expect Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry to combine for 33 points against Duke like they did against LSU. It’s about time these two seniors got back on track, allowing MSU to really take advantage of being a way better perimeter shooting team than Duke.
As good as Goins and McQuaid’s defense has been so far this tournament, it has more than made up for their lack of scoring. It will be more important than ever that they keep it going. It’s a pretty safe bet that McQuaid will be on RJ Barrett and Goins will have to guard Zion Williamson. If that is indeed how the match-ups play out, Goins and McQuaid will be responsible for trying to shut down a majority of Duke’s entire offense if Reddish is out, certainly making this a key story-line.
Now, it is impossible to think that Williamson and Barrett can be entirely shut down; however, it isn’t unrealistic to expect MSU to contain these two to the extent that Virginia Tech did. Williamson averages 22.6 points per game and he scored 23 last game against the Hokies. Barrett averages 22.7 points per game and was limited to 18 against VT. Barrett did contribute 11 assists, but part of that was due to Tre Jones’ rare shooting performance that isn’t likely to be repeated given his atrocious three-point percentage on the year.
If McQuaid and Goins can play defense the way Spartan fans know they can, MSU should be able to hold both guys under 24 points this game. You might be thinking “Wait, MSU still has a chance to win even if Williamson and Barrett combine for up to 48 points?”
The answer is yes. If Reddish doesn’t play, Duke is only left with one other player that scores more than 5.5 points per game (Tre Jones, 9.5 PPG). Duke genuinely does not get much help outside of its two primary stars. This team really will be the definition of a two-man show come Sunday night, with very little outside help from the supporting cast.
Leadership and Discipline
In addition to simply needing these two seniors to shoot well and play stellar defense, they’re also going to have to turn their experience-level as a whole into an advantage over this young Duke squad. While this could mean a variety of things, it will mostly be seen in two facets of the game: turnovers and fouls.
McQuaid and Goins might not have a major hand in the turnover aspect, but they can still do their part in limiting the chaos while MSU tries to break down Duke with tons of ball-reversals and high-post entry passes & cuts. McQuaid has also occasionally played the role of a secondary ball-handler when Cassius Winston needs a break and Tom Izzo doesn’t want to introduce Foster Loyer into the game. In these situations, it would be crucial that McQuaid plays in-check and doesn’t try to push passes that aren’t there.
With that said, foul trouble is probably a bigger focal point for McQuaid and Goins than turnovers anyway. Williamson is excellent at drawing fouls in a variety of ways, whether that be with his shot fakes or his quick first-step, leading defenders to foul from behind while trying to stay with him. There will be some times that Goins won’t be able to avoid getting called for a foul, but the key is to not pick up any dumb fouls like hand-checks on the perimeter or over-the-back calls when he’s boxed-out. He’s going to have to think and behave like the experienced senior that he is.
If he’s forced to sit for extended periods of time, Michigan State sacrifices a big chunk of their rebounding advantage over Duke. Losing Goins’ nine rebounds per game from the court won’t be the only problem if he gets in foul trouble though, as Zion’s next defensive match-up would likely be an easier opponent for him to beat off the dribble (if it’s Xavier Tillman) or to bully down low (if it’s Aaron Henry) as well. McQuaid will also have to make sure he stays in the game as Barrett is very crafty off the dribble.
Overall, it’ll require a team-wide effort from the Spartans on Sunday night. MSU could probably still squeak out a win if either McQuaid or Goins are off, but not both. At this point of the tournament, MSU will need to have all of its key players step up on the same day if they want to keep extending their season.
McQuaid and Goins getting hot from beyond-the-arc and bringing their A-game on defense would pretty much ensure a Final Four tilt with defensive-juggernaut Texas Tech next Saturday. That game would also require Goins and McQuaid to hit shots from the perimeter given Texas Tech’s athletes and paint-congestion, but let’s just worry about Duke for now...