It's a Final Four matchup in December
You have to wonder if Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is a genius or a glutton for punishment. Maybe he's a little bit of both. The Spartans are in the midst of a brutal schedule to open the season. They've already lost at Kansas and have Duke, Oklahoma and Kentucky in the coming weeks. Needless to say, we'll soon find out how good Michigan State really is. The same can be said for Duke, which was upset by Purdue in the final of the Great Alaska Shootout on Saturday. The Blue Devils have an experienced backcourt, but they still are a little thin up front. And although they are much improved on the boards, their inside game is lacking. We don't usually see these two teams meet this early in the season. Duke and Michigan State have played only four times -- with Duke winning three -- and last faced one another in the 1999 Final Four.
Michigan State has gone with a four-guard offense, and although the Spartans have struggled at times they have found a rising star in high-flying freshman Shannon Brown, who has been a much needed spark off the bench. Since Chris Hill has struggled, Izzo has moved Alan Anderson to the point. But that is only a temporary solution and don't be surprised to see Hill running the show in this one. Kelvin Torbert is a scorer with an explosive first step and Maurice Ager has been the Spartans most consistent player.
The reason Michigan State can get away with playing four guards is Paul Davis. The 6-foot-11 sophomore is extremely agile and has good post moves. He leads the team with 13.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, but has been in a funk to start the season. Davis has shown a tendency to disappear at times and force shots when things are going well. But he's also Michigan State's No. 1 scoring option and when the Spartans need a basket expect them to pound it in to the big man.
Duke is all about superb freshman Luol Dang. The 6-8 swingman can shoot from the outside, go to the basket and bang inside. He leads the Blue Devils with 16.8 points per game and is shooting 47.4 percent from three-point range. J.J. Redick can light it up from long range when he gets hot, but is off to a shaky start and has hit just 5 of 22 3-pointers. Like Michigan State, Duke will go with a guard-oriented attack and point guard Chris Duhon and combo guard Daniel Ewing are steady hands who can score when they need to.
Where the Blue Devils have been vulnerable in recent years is inside. Duke is better in that area this season, but it still hasn't figured out how to dominate (or at least control) a game in the paint. Part of the problem is that Duke doesn't have a true center and takes so many outside shots. Another is the Blue Devils' two primary inside options -- sophomore forwards Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph -- are still developing. But they are getting better are becoming more involved in the offense.
Rebounding and toughness have been Michigan State's trademarks over the years. The Spartans run an infamous war drill in practice, during which a lid is placed on the basket and players scrap and claw for rebounds. Michigan State has led the Big Ten in rebounding margin the last six years and has a 4.3 advantage this season. Izzo's teams also never give up. Against Kansas last week, Michigan State was down 18 points in the second half but came back to make it a game.
A big factor in this one could be legs. Duke played Alaska on Saturday night and will undoubtedly be tired from the trip to East Lansing. Meanwhile, Michigan State hosted a weekend tournament. The Spartans are deeper than the Blue Devils so expect Michigan State to push the pace and substitute early and often.
Both teams are extremely well coached and well-prepared, but Coach K is still in a class by himself. He has game management skills like no other coach and the Blue Devils will have an ever so slight advantage there.
You've got to love early games like this. In what could be a preview of a Final Four game, Michigan State and Duke will fight it out until the bitter end. The Spartans and Blue Devils are fairly evenly matched and the deciding factor will be which team shoots better. Michigan State will have a huge advantage playing at home. No, the Spartans fans aren't quite the Cameron Crazies, but the Izzo Zone -- a group of boisterous students right on top of the court -- is loud and will give State a lift. Michigan State has been nearly unbeatable at home as of late and had won 76 of its last 80 at Breslin Center. Still, this one should go down to the wire, and like any battle of heavyweights the margin of error is extremely slim. In the end, I like Michigan State ... by a nose.
The Pick: Michigan State 79, Duke 77