Matchup: (7) Michigan State @ (1) Duke
Date: Saturday, April 4, 6:09 PM EST (Grownup Time)
Fairly early on in the season, a demarcation arose in college basketball. There was once-in-a-generation-good Kentucky, the teams you thought might be good enough to beat Kentucky, and then everyone else.
We find ourselves here, the penultimate weekend of the season before us, and that story pretty much played out in the bracket. There's Kentucky, fresh off of a mortal scare from Notre Dame but still looking the part of a juggernaut. There's Wisconsin, the veteran-laden team with the probable Wooden winner. There's Duke, bearing league-bound talent at all positions and still under the watchful eye of the game's most decorated active coach. The Badgers and Blue Devils both certainly qualify as part of that second group, with the definite ability to take down Kentucky if things fell correctly.
And...there's Michigan State. Michigan State, of the 11 losses, ~60% season free throw percentage, with only one definite NBA-caliber athlete on the roster and nobody taller than 6'9". But there they are anyway, justifying yet another round of admiring articles about the mastery of the man in charge, Tom Izzo. Those plaudits are well-earned; in his last 17 years, Izzo has brought one title and 7 Final Fours to a program which had history, but had mostly forgotten the feeling of this type of success.
MSU's rise from where they were 5 or 6 weeks ago is a great story, and given preseason expectations, making it this far puts the season in the "Unqualified Success" category. Having gotten this far, though, why not see what more can be done?
Ah. About that. The man sitting on the opposing bench, that most decorated guy? He's one of the very, very few with a strong track record of success against Izzo, an 8-1 career record in fact. Krzyzewski is the best in the business, and if you want to credit his success to the battalions of amazingly talented guys who have played for him, well, someone had to convince them that Duke was the right pitstop en route to the pros, and the few other teams which can land that kind of talent have almost uniformly failed to wield it in as effectively.
As an interesting sidebar, Krzyzewski has been the one to seize three premiere talents in the last two classes on whom Izzo was heavily gambling as cornerstones of last year's team and this year's- Jabari Parker, Tyus Jones, and Jahlil Okafor. Last year, Parker very well could have been the talent that put MSU over the top. This year, Jones and Okafor would have gone a long way to ease the losses from last year that made MSU a very inconsistent outfit for most of the season.
But that's all water under the bridge now, and the fact is Izzo will have to defeat Jones, Okafor, and their talented supporting cast to advance to the title game. Here's the positional breakdown of how that might happen.
Point Guard: Tyus Jones vs Travis Trice
If there's a matchup which perfectly encapsulates what these two programs are, it's this one: the former all-everything recruit pursued by every program under the sun versus the lightly recruited career backup who has turned out to be much, much more than that when finally given the opportunity.
Although Jones is undoubtedly more physically gifted, the two players have eerily similar statistical profiles. Both of them log heavy minutes, both shoot right around 37% from 3, even their assist/turnover ratios are similar. Trice scores a few more points per game, but attempts far more shots than Jones does. Both players have come up clutch in high-pressure situations to seal games for their teams. Overall, one assumes that Izzo was probably hoping for the type of season Trice has turned in when he spent so much time and energy recruiting Jones.
Wings: Quinn Cook/Matt Jones vs Bryn Forbes/Denzel Valentine
Again, we have matchups with players who do a lot of the same types of things very well. Cook and Jones are both lethal 3-point shooters. Cook, in particular, is hitting over 40% on the season from range; Jones' usage is considerably lower, but he hits almost 39% of his deep looks. The efficacy of these two shooters could be a huge factor in this game if, as I expect, MSU brings help to the post to manage Okafor.
Meanwhile, Forbes and Valentine are even better from 3, hitting 43% and 41% respectively. Forbes compares very well to Matt Jones in that he is used more selectively, and has come off the bench at times this season. The Cleveland State transfer was a major defensive liability at the beginning of the season, but to his credit, Forbes has probably improved more over the course of this season than any single MSU player I can remember watching. Nonetheless, Valentine is where I consider MSU to have an advantage here. His excellent rebounding and point guard-level ballhandling, especially in transition, allow him to have a major impact on the game even if his shots aren't falling.
Power Forward: Justise Winslow vs Branden Dawson
Here, too, it's tough to say who has an advantage, though the players are at least different enough to allow a meaningful comparison. Winslow is a more polished offensive player, and is effective shooting out to 3-point range; in fact, he has more made 3s on the season than Matt Jones, though part of that is the fact that Jones didn't play nearly as much before Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed midseason. Athletically, Winslow is comparable to Dawson, though it appears Duke deploys him in different ways due to Okafor's presence down low.
Dawson provides a very strong defensive presence, capable of matching up with players who are smaller, bigger, or the same size as him. He's a voracious rebounder, an emphatic shot-blocker as a help defender, and has developed a somewhat respectable midrange/post game, though he's still much better in transition or cleaning the offensive glass than attempting to score one-on-one. His free throw shooting remains a serious weakness, and at times during the season, teams would begin fouling MSU, and Dawson in particular, when attempting to mount second-half comebacks.
Post: Jahlil Okafor/Amile Jefferson vs Gavin Schilling/Matt Costello
Here is where things get dicey for the Spartans. Okafor is regarded as a top-5 pick in this year's draft for a lot of very good reasons. His game definitely slants offensively, where he has the kind of back-to-the-basket post game you don't see very often anymore. He averages over 17 points and nearly 9 rebounds a game, and although his defensive game isn't all that great, MSU has not run much offense through the traditional low block this year anyway, so Okafor may not be tested. Jefferson, meanwhile, has found himself relegated to a bench role due to Okafor's arrival, though he still gets better than 20 minutes per game and contributes reasonable production (roughly 6 points and 6 rebounds).
MSU's bigs have had both moments of greatness and moments of intense frustration this year. Gavin Schilling is the nominal starter, but he remains extremely foul-prone and actually plays fewer minutes per game than Costello. Schilling began playing basketball quite late, and as such he's still a work in progress on offense, but he's got the athletic goods to finish a couple plays around the basket per game, and his ball-screen defense is a couple of notches above Costello. Costello, for his part, has a superior offensive game around the basket and has shown an ability to hit step-away jumpers once in a while. He, too, has had some issues with foul trouble this year, but not nearly to the degree Schilling has. Costello does also get lost defensively at times, but generally compensates with good timing on block attempts. Izzo has frequently used these two as a single player at the end of games, subbing Schilling in for defense and Costello for offense when the game slows down enough to allow that.
Bench: Amile Jefferson/Marshall Plumlee/Grayson Allen vs Tum Tum Nairn/Marvin Clark Jr/Alvin Ellis III
This is the one clear advantage for MSU. Duke plays with a short bench due to Rasheed Sulaimon's dismissal and Semi Ojeleye's midseason transfer. Jefferson is by far the most significant contributor and will give both Okafor and Winslow any rest or foul relief they might need. Allen is more or less the only sub at the guard and wing positions, and is pretty low-usage on the offensive end. And yes, Duke somehow still has a Plumlee on the roster, though his statistical contributions suggest he's really just a warm body. Beyond those three guys, the only other guys on the roster are bench mobbers who don't play when the game is in question.
On any list of reasons why this game might turn out differently from the first matchup, Nairn would be a good place to start. If Forbes hadn't made the strides he has, Nairn would be MSU's most improved player by a wide margin. He's still small enough that big, athletic guards can give him some trouble defensively, but his positioning has improved so dramatically that he can use his otherworldly speed to stay in front of just about anyone. That speed also catches a lot of teams off-guard on offense, and Nairn was a one-man press break against Louisville. However, Nairn remains an extremely reluctant shooter, and Oklahoma sagged off of him by about 5 feet to great effect.
Clark has improved his defense well enough to give Dawson some rest without opening a hole in the Spartan defense. He isn't the same type of athlete Dawson is, but you can already see flashes of a more diverse offensive skill set than Dawson has. Clark is a willing 3-point shooter, and has improved his game around the basket as well. Ellis is a more limited-usage guy, but considering that earlier this season he had fallen out of the rotation entirely, even the small contribution he makes now is an improvement. Clark and Ellis did essentially win the last game of the season for MSU by combining for 30 points at Indiana, so there is some potential for big contributions there.
Overall Advantage: Duke
...but only slightly. The difference between Okafor and MSU's bigs is, in my mind, the difference in the game. Okafor had his way in the first game these teams played earlier in the season. After that game, and the tilt with Wisconsin in which Frank Kaminsky went off for 31, I'm inclined to think Izzo will craft a gameplan centered around stopping Okafor. Whether MSU can do that, and whether Duke's shooters are able to capitalize if MSU tries, should be the decisive aspects of this game.
Tune it at 6:00 EST on Saturday and we'll see what happens.