This past Friday night, #12 Arizona Wildcats traveled to Durham, North Carolina, to take on #2 Duke Blue Devils. This game offered Tom Izzo & Co. the rare opportunity to watch an out-of-conference game featuring two upcoming opponents, as the Spartans take on Duke this Tuesday in Chicago and then battle Arizona on November 23 in Palm Springs, California. If you were fortunate to have seen this game, then you were treated to a great game from start to finish. If you did not see it, just know that there are reasons to be concerned about these looming matchups but there are also reasons for optimism.
My very first reaction to this game was the size of the players. It seemed like both teams were significantly larger than our Spartans. Arizona’s starting five features players standing 6’2”, 6’4”, 6’6”, 6’7”, and 7’0”. The 6’7” guy is Keshad Johnson and he is probably the biggest 6’7” person I’ve ever seen; he plays much bigger than that. Conversely, the 6’6” player is Pelle Larsson of Sweden, and he may have been the smallest person I’ve ever seen listed at that height. And Duke’s starters are listed at 6’2”, 6’3”, 6’5”, 6’9”, and 7’0”. Beyond the starters, Duke was running out backups in the front court who stood at 6’9”, 6’10”, and 7’1”, while Arizona’s lone front court reserve was the 7’2” Motiejus Krivas of Lithuania. For comparison’s sake, the starting 5 for our Spartans are 6’1”, 6’4”, 6’4”, 6’8”, and 6’9”. Beyond that, we do have a pair of 6’11” players in Carson Cooper and Xavier Booker. But yes, both of these teams will have a height advantage over us.
Probably the biggest name in this contest was Kyle Filipowski, the Duke sophomore center who shocked many when he decided to return to Durham for a second year. As a freshman, he averaged 15 points and 9 rebounds per game. So far this year he has scored 25 points in both games. In the Arizona game, he shot 10-20, which sounds pretty good on its surface. More impressively, he was 3-5 from deep (last year he only shot 28% from behind the arc). That left him at 7-15 from 2. I don’t have the stats on his shooting in the paint, but I do recall him missing quite a few of his shots down low, sometimes badly. Anytime he was shooting down low with a defender on him, he struggled to score. So I feel like there is tape on how to play him. Sissoko and Cooper, and maybe even Booker, are going to need to put a chest into Filipowski and stand their ground with their arms straight up. Keeping him from scoring at will is the biggest key for Tuesday’s game.
For Arizona, their biggest name is not so clear-cut. In fact, they are getting some very evenly distributed scoring through their first two games, with all five starters reaching double digits in both games. Their main ball handler, Kylan Boswell, does not get a ton of assists, but he also never turns the ball over and he is a great shooter from all levels. Next to him in the backcourt is the transfer from UNC, Caleb Love. Fun story that the commentators shared Friday: Love wanted to transfer to um but um would not transfer all his credits. Idiots! Love is going to have an adjustment period from his Tar Heels years; if the first two games are an indication, he will not be shooting as much in his new uniform. On the wing, they have Larsson, who just seemed to be everywhere. He was collecting rebounds that he had no right to get, not with taller players in the vicinity, and was getting to loose balls thanks to his startling quickness.
In the frontcourt, Oumar Ballo (from Mali!) was one of the guys who made life difficult for Filipowski. And also getting credit for disrupting Duke’s star was the aforementioned Keshad Johnson, who further contributed with a team-leading eight boards. Beyond the starters, Krivas was probably the Wildcats most important bench player despite only playing a dozen minutes; it felt like more than that.
One thing that I noticed watching that game that impressed me about Arizona was the fact that from the 11:27 mark of the 2nd half, when they picked up their sixth team foul, they did not commit another foul until there was five seconds left and they intentionally fouled in order to keep Duke from getting a three-point shot off. That is some incredible discipline. MSU is going to have to attack the basket with drives from the wings and by feeding the ball down low to the big men to make sure Arizona can’t stay out of foul trouble.
Arizona pulled down more rebounds than Duke did on Friday night, including more of the offensive AND defensive varieties. They also had more assists and more blocks. In fact, the only category where Duke had a significant advantage was in turnovers, where Arizona had 17 to the Blue Devils’ 14. A major contributor to this number was the great job that Duke’s backcourt trio of Jeremy Roach, Jared McCain, and Tyrese Proctor did getting steals as they had 2, 3, and 2, respectively. Ball security is going to have to be a top priority for MSU when they take on Duke in a couple of days. If the Blue Devils backcourt can continue to pick pockets, that is going to lead to easy transition points.
Again, this was an incredibly competitive game. The largest lead of the contest was only eight points, and that only happened once and lasted one possession. The vast majority of the game was played within a four-point differential. That means that both of these teams will have had experience in a tight game against a high-level opponent. Yes, MSU had a tight game down the stretch against James Madison (and Tennessee too), but the Dukes are not the same level of team as Duke or Arizona. The greatest thing MSU can do is get out to a big lead early and make these opponents try to play from behind. Easier said than done, of course, but short of that, it is absolutely crucial that the Spartans do not have another slow start. I am not convinced yet that they have the ability to come from behind against the top teams in the country.
All that said, I am going to stick with my predictions from TOC’s preseason predictions article and say that MSU pulls off both of these games.
Speaking of predictions, you all remember my prediction for the MSU/OSU game Saturday? I said it would be 5-0 OSU. And who among you laughed at me? Who mocked my prophecy? Well, how many touchdowns did OSU end up with? And how many did MSU have? Yeah, who’s laughing now?