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Elite Eight Recap: Spartans Upend Fightin’ Williamsons, Final Four Bound

MSU’s 68-67 instant classic over Duke capped a weekend of probably the best Elite Eight matchups ever.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Michigan State vs Duke
/Baker Street sax solo intensifies
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Are you not entertained?


Some of us (cough) complained bitterly about the Sweet Sixteen slate, feeling it lacked the flair we’ve come to hope for and expect from in March Madness. And no, Oregon/Virginia and Texas Tech/Michigan were not what you would call attractive basketball games.

But we saw the other side of the coin in the Elite Eight, where Texas Tech/Gonzaga, Purdue/Virginia, and Kentucky/Auburn were all wildly entertaining, featuring a diverse array of playing styles and individual talents of all types.

This is what “the good teams” get you.

And it was on that stage that Michigan State stepped into the ring once more with its nemesis, Duke and Mike Krzyzewski and probably a quarter billion in future NBA career earnings and shoe endorsements worth of roster. Duke and K, with their 11-1 lifetime record over Izzo, Duke and K, who when these teams last met in the postseason crumpled MSU up and tossed them aside.

I never saw it coming, and it was all the sweeter for it.

I knew it was possible, for all the history, for all the hype around Duke, when a 12-0 Duke run, the mechanism of MSU’s demise so many times before, did not result in a Spartan collapse and playing out of the string, but rather with a 13-0 run the other way to give MSU a 4-point halftime lead.

Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett were both excellent. But Sunday’s result is a damn strong anecdote in the body of evidence that superlative talent without experience, without depth is not a winning formula in college basketball. And as good as Duke’s freshmen were, a surprising number of turnovers into a not-very-turnovery defense betrayed a lack of connection that, whatever their other occasional shortcomings, has never been a problem for MSU this year.

And of course it was Kenny Goins who made Williamson pay for leaving him alone behind the 3-point line with 35 seconds to go. Goins, the former walk-on who has spent his career evolving from rebounding implement to capable defensive player to serviceable shooter to guy who really should not be left alone in clutch time, who started the game 1-7 from 3 and still had not a moment’s hesitation in pulling the trigger, trailing with under a minute to go in a regional final.

The contrast with Barrett, who took the last three shots for Duke, is almost too easy. Barrett will probably be the second, or at worst third, pick in the draft. He leads all freshmen in scoring this year, and most defenders don’t have a chance against him in iso. But in the waning moments, he missed a shot, missed another shot, and then drew a foul but, down two, missed his first free throw, and then made the one he intended to miss after that. As good as he is, he’s still a kid. Goins has been working in these rebound mines for 36 years, bad knee, busted face and all.

On the succeeding inbounds, Xavier Tillman gave Cassius Winston a little eyebrow, threw it upcourt in stride, and Winston’s much-commented-upon lack of athleticism was on full display as he...escaped the Duke players chasing him and wound the clock out (that trope has low-key become the new Perry Hills Was A Wrestler).

It took me a few seconds to register that time had in fact expired, the scoreboard was in fact what it was, and the vile blue dragon lay upon on its back with the hilt of a green and white sword sticking out of its chest. Once it did, well, the dog is still shooting nervous glances at me occasionally.

One colossal obstacle cleared, it’s now fine to survey the rest of the field. Of the top seeds, only Virginia escaped their region, but that won’t matter until MSU clears its Saturday date with Texas Tech, the top-ranked defense in the country. I’ve heard a lot of shade thrown at their offense, but even with that grotesque shooting performance against Michigan, they’re still putting up 74.0 ppg through the first four rounds, which with their defense is more than enough to beat just about anybody. The job Chris Beard has done in not only building last year’s surprisingly strong team, but in then reconstructing on the fly after massive departures cannot be praised strongly enough, and though MSU opened as a betting favorite, the line has already moved toward Texas Tech.

All of which is to say that although finally beating Duke is great, that doesn’t mean the field is going to bend a knee and watch MSU raise its third national title banner. Of course, it would also be incorrect to suggest MSU isn’t perfectly comfortable in a rock fight. Nothing is guaranteed at this point - this feels like the most wide-open Final Four in recent memory - but having taken down the dragon, MSU may as well open the damn treasure chest after 19 years of waiting.