The Duke Blue Devils and the Michigan State Spartans prepare to face each other in the “other” Final Four game in what will be a match-up between two of college basketball’s elite head coaches in Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. This game isn’t getting the same level of attention as the clash between Kentucky and Wisconsin, but it carries just as much intrigue.
All too often analysis of Duke boils down to projected first overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft Jahlil Okafor and the brilliance of 900+ win bench boss “Coach K”. Michigan State’s chances in this game are often predicated upon whether they can take stifle Okafor in some way. The reality is a little more complicated.
Yes, Izzo and the Spartans need to keep Okafor quiet, if possible, but that significantly under-estimate the quality of the rest of the Blue Devils lineup. Okafor scored just 15 points in total against the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Utah Utes and yet Duke somehow beat Utah by six points and Gonzaga by 14.
This isn’t a team with a huge amount of depth, but their starting lineup is far more balanced than it has generally been given credit for. The moving of Justise Winslow to the four-spot has transformed the Blue Devils offensively and defensively in terms of their tenacity on the inside and ability to run the floor. Tyus Jones is an under-rated scorer, he’s had 15 points in each of the last two games and Quinn Cook is a veteran leader who can run this offense and also score when it counts.
This is also an improved team defensively as well. Expect Cook to harass and hassle the red hot Travis Trice all game and for a busy Blue Devils team to play out of bad matchups.
Very few people saw this run coming from the Spartans. Izzo’s team was inconsistent all year long, but as always seems to be the case, they’ve found a way to pull together as a team when it counts. They’ve beaten some highly-rated teams to get this far knocking off #2 Virginia, #3 Oklahoma and #4 Louisville.
This team revolves around Trice as the offensive initiator, Branden Dawson’s energy on the inside and Denzel Valentine is arguably the team’s most talented player as it pertains to an opportunity to play in the NBA. Moving Bryn Forbes to the bench has also turned into an inspired choice with Forbes providing help to the bench scoring and his replacement Tum Tum Nairn Jr. giving the starting lineup an offensive kick as well.
Double teaming Okafor can keep him quiet offensively, but the evidence suggests that doing that only opens up room for Duke’s other playmakers to score. With six days to prepare, expect Izzo to come up with a way of making this game physical, tough and messy as only the Spartans are capable of. It’ll be a good test of what Okafor is capable of under those circumstances.
Betting Preview: Duke (-5.5) vs. Michigan State
This’ll be an interesting matchup in terms of strategy, but it feels like the Spartans might have had their run. Both teams are a little imbalanced and both will have the opportunity to exploit mismatches. Duke have the x-factor in Okafor and they’ll probably run more of their offense through him in a big game like this, they have a lot of energy from Winslow and Cook, and they have another gear that they can hit in this contest. They can handle this spread.
The Pick: Duke (-5.5) (www.betonline.ag)
Writer’s Record Against The Spread: 39-32