We’ve come to it at last — the final meeting between Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo and the legendary Duke head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, will take place on the grandest stage that college basketball has to offer. A lot will be made about the men on the sidelines, but just like in many of the previous meetings between these two powerhouses, the game itself will offer plenty of exciting storylines as well.
No. 7 Michigan State, for its part, will enter the game happy that the Spartans were able to survive first-round foe Davidson, and will now look to thrive in the role of the underdog against No. 2 Duke.
Where: Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina
When: Sunday, March 20, 5:15 p.m. Eastern Time
DraftKings Line: Duke -6.5
DraftKings Over/Under: 144.5
The state of Duke’s program
It is an incredibly interesting, but also melancholic season for the Blue Devils. Duke once again cemented its place among the top powers in college basketball, yet also hopped along for Coach K’s final ride after almost 42 years, 1,198 wins, five national titles and countless other tremendous memories.
Like him or not, Krzyzewski is clearly one of the most-accomplished college coaches ever and will leave a gigantic void for his hand-picked successor, former Duke guard Jon Scheyer. The coaching search didn’t exactly go smoothly as Duke president Vincent Price and Krzyzewski had different ideas about who should follow the legendary coach. In the end, Coach K prevailed and leaves a program for his former player that has everything you could dream of: A household name, plenty of great recruiting trails, a tradition second to few others and a national brand.
In recent years, Coach K has transformed the Blue Devils into more of a one-and-done program, which has brought him mixed results. Duke’s last national title was in 2015, and the Blue Devils haven’t been to a Final Four since. Nonetheless, for every year that college basketball is played, there will be people picking Duke all the way and early recruiting results for Scheyer don’t seem to suggest that this will change in the near future. You never know what the future holds, though, of course in a situation where such a larger than life figure leaves his post, and Duke wouldn’t be the first place where performances take a certain dip in such a situation.
This season for Duke and the Blue Devils’ first-round game
Duke won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championship in what could be considered a bit of a down year for the ACC. Interestingly it was Duke’s first conference title in more than a decade, as the Blue Devils last won it in 2010.
The Blue Devils, with a freshmen-laden roster, went through the normal struggles such a concept entails and had to fight through a lot of close games along the way. To their credit, though, the Blue Devils won most of these contests and clearly grew as a group over the course of the season. They are currently ranked 10th in Kenpom with an overall record of 29-6 (Michigan State currently checks in at 38th). Duke’s last two losses — at North Carolina in the season finale and the ACC Tournament final against (at the time) a red hot Virginia Tech team — were pretty decisive, yet overall, Duke performed really steady throughout the year.
In Duke’s first-round matchup with No. 15-seeded Cal State Fullerton on Friday, the Blue Devils also left no doubt about their lofty expectations for the tournament, dominating the action more or less from start to finish. There were clearly some things that Coach K will harp on afterward (like giving up 12 offensive boards, committing 13 turnovers or, rightfully, the wet floor in the arena), but overall Duke had a very solid start to this year’s March Madness. Duke’s top-scorer was freshman superstar Paolo Banchero (17 points, 10 rebounds), as the entire Blue Devils starting lineup scored in double figures.
Projected starting five
PG Jeremy Roach (So., 6-1 175 lbs, 8.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 40.3% FG, 34.2% 3P)
SG A.J. Griffin (Fr., 6-6, 222 lbs, 10.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 50.2% FG, 46.7% 3P)
SF Wendell Moore Jr. (Jr., 6-5, 216 lbs, 13.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 50.5% FG, 40.2% 3P)
PF Paolo Banchero (Fr., 6-10, 250 lbs, 17.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 47.4% FG, 30.6% 3P)
C Mark Williams (So., 7-0, 243 lbs, 10.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 70.7% FG, 73.8% FT)
SG Trevor Keels (Fr., 6-4, 221 lbs)
SF Joey Baker (Sr., 6-6, 201 lbs)
C Theo John (Sr., 6-9, 255 lbs)
What to expect from Duke
Just like in past years, the Duke Blue Devils’ roster comes with a who’s who of recent high school recruiting rankings; actually, Duke has six top-25 recruits on the team’s current roster. Even with all the talent around himm the brightest star for Coach K this season is Banchero — a do-it-all power forward who most likely will be among the top-five guys picked in the upcoming NBA Draft.
Banchero is partly a throwback player, yet also fits really well into the modern game with elite level passing ability, strong handles and a decent long-range game. He will operate plenty with his back to the basket, yet is probably most dangerous in the high-post facing the action. With his long 6-foot-10 frame, he can look and pass over the top of most defenses and does a tremendous job of finding cutters or open shooters. He is fairly strong, has a well-developed build and can play above the rim as well. Banchero’s strongest asset, though, might be his footwork, as he does a great job of finding angles to attack, getting his man out of position and creating scoring for himself and others. The one downside of his vast skillset is that he, at times, falls in love with his perimeter game even if he clearly is more efficient inside.
Next to Banchero plays sophomore center Mark Williams, who is among the best rim protectors in college basketball (2.8 blocks per game). At first glance the seven-footer mostly helps with defense and rebounding, yet shouldn’t be underestimated as a playmaker either. He had five assists against Cal State Fullerton, has a knack for finding his spots and understands the game pretty well for a young big.
With that said though, Williams is more of a finisher than anything else and usually takes advantage of the amount of space his front-court mate creates. The same can be said about Duke’s guards and wings, who this season are shooting the ball really well from three-point range. The headliner of that group is junior Wendell Moore Jr., who acts basically as the veteran leader for this young group.
Moore is a crafty, long guard/forward who can score on all three levels and has become a tremendously efficient scorer. He doesn’t blow you away with athleticism, handles or creativity, yet overall, is just a rock-solid wing who can hurt you from plenty of spots.
What’s really interesting about this year’s Blue Devils team is the total lack of a true point guard, not only in the starting lineup, but on the entire roster. Moore, Jeremy Roach, Trevor Keels and others share the ball handling duties in the backcourt and basically take their turn at the position with mixed results.
Duke makes up for the lack of point-guard-play with immense individual talent and also with a group that all across the board has great passing ability. The Blue Devils play unselfish basketball, make extra passes, do not commit a lot of turnovers and shoot it well from anywhere on the court. All that results in the sixth-ranked offense in America, according to Kenpom, a really remarkable feat considering the lack of a traditional playmaker. Duke will support its strong half-court attack with a solid running game that takes advantage of the athletes that it has.
This team isn‘t like some of Coach K’s super-athletic former teams, featuring guys like Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett, who were just loaded with jump and run athletes. This year’s squad is more bulky, stout and strong than the team is high-flying or super athletic (at least by Duke standards). The poster-child for this is probably freshman A.J. Griffin, who looks more like a defensive end in football, yet has a variety of solid basketball fundamentals as a son of former NBA player Adrian Griffin.
The brawn and solid length of the Blue Devils helps them a ton on the defensive end, where the team hardly, if ever, get pushed around and makes it tough for opponents to shoot over them. Yet on the defensive side is also where the possible chinks in the armor begin, as supported by Duke’s No. 42 ranking in Kenpom defensive efficiency.
Overall many of the Duke players have potential as individual defenders, yet as a group, they struggle from time to time. Communication, as with most young teams, isn’t the Blue Devils’ strong suit and especially in pick-and-roll situations, they get out of position quite frequently. While big and strong, most of Duke’s guards and wings aren’t the most fleet-footed, and struggle to recover in the pick-and-roll defense.
Luckily for them the Blue Devils, they have an elite eraser in Williams as a last line of defense (and to a lesser part, Banchero as well), so that allows the back-court defenders to really be aggressive on the perimeter and allow some penetration. In its half-court offense, Duke is more methodical than explosive, especially when Roach isn’t on the court. He is by far the Blue Devils’ fastest player and can break down a defense one-on-one. When he isn’t playing, the Blue Devils don’t always get a lot of movement and can get caught up in their, at times, plodding ways.
Duke plays a very short rotation, as basically only six guys get heavy minutes with a few sprinkled in for some veterans to give a little bit of rest to the top guys. On a short turnaround (and a long season), that could be a big disadvantage, just like the lack of experience could be a factor for Duke.
While the media will have a field day with the coaching matchup, and a lot of talk will surround Coach K and Izzo, there is something to be said about the pressure this Duke team faces. There is always a little extra pressure on star-studded groups like theis, but this version also has to deal with the great burden of being K’s last ever team.
How Michigan State matches up with Duke
The Spartans have a few distinct advantages over the Blue Devils, most notably in terms of experience, defending as a group and with point guards who can control the tempo. Duke, on the other hand, has an overwhelming front-court and won’t see anybody on the Spartans capable of matching up with Banchero.
If Joey Hauser or Julius Marble will spend a lot of time on Banchero defensively, it could get ugly real fast, so maybe Izzo gets a bit creative and allows Marcus Bingham Jr. to counter the Duke freshman star. Either way, it will be hard for MSU’s big men to keep their counterparts off the scoreboard and off the glass. If Hauser gets unconscious again from downtown, like he was against Davidson. it would rob the Blue Devils of a big part of their rim protection.
Over the course of the year, Duke has limited opponent’s three-point percentage, yet there should still be plenty of opportunities for Michigan State to create open looks with its sets. The Spartans will need to heavily rely on their defense, as MSU sure wouldn’t be able to withstand a shootout with Duke. Tempo could be an interesting factor, as Duke plays such a tight rotation. The Spartans will look to attack in waves and never let the younger Blue Devils rest on defense. The big question remains, though: what to do with Banchero who you basically can’t double-team due to his passing ability? We’ll find out.
Key matchup: Paolo Banchero versus the Spartans‘ power forwards
Initially, Hauser should draw the tough task of defending Banchero and most likely will struggle defending the talented future pro. But Izzo has different options and most likely will use them over the course of the game. He probably can’t take the Duke freshman out of the game, but if Hauser makes him work on defense, then this could bode well for the final stretch in a close game. Malik Hall didn’t have a good game against Davidson and might be due for a strong performance here. He certainly has the strength to match up with the longer Banchero, and could also draw him out of the paint on defense.
These are the games you just have to love as a basketball fan: Legendary coaches, March Madness, teams that could be considered rivals, two different approaches to the game and extremely-high stakes. Michigan State clearly is the underdog in this one yet should definitely be equipped to put up a fight. The longer the Spartans can keep it close, the better their chances are, even if this young Duke team is more fundamentally-sound and savvy than your normal freshman-laden team.
Enjoy the game, stay classy and last but not least, GO GREEN!