The No. 7 Michigan State Spartans look to extend their unanticipated NCAA Tournament run against the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils in Saturday night’s national semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Despite head coach Tom Izzo’s masterful 46-16 tournament record over the last 18 years, including now seven trips to the Final Four, the Spartans were not expected to reach this far, especially after early regular season losses to Duke, Kansas, Notre Dame, and Maryland.
The loss to Duke even took place on a neutral floor in Indianapolis, with the Spartans falling, 81-71. Still, the city has been a bit of a good luck charm for Michigan State, as it was the location for Izzo’s sole national title back in 2000.
Blessed with superior guard play and experienced upperclassmen, Michigan State blazed a difficult East Region trail, bumping off No. 10 Georgia, No. 2 Virginia, No. 3 Oklahoma, and No. 4 Louisville to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.
"I think it's great," Izzo said to The Detroit News, referring to the Spartans overall success in Indiana. "This has just worked out for us like nothing I've ever seen. I'm not a big believer in destiny gets it done. I think hard work gets it done. But it sure is fun to be in the right place at the right time in the right tournament."
That hard work starts with senior guard Travis Trice, senior swingman Branden Dawson, and junior guard Denzel Valentine. Trice has just edged out Valentine for the team scoring lead, with 14.8 points to 14.5 per game, respectively, and the two are neck-and-neck when it comes to making plays, with Trice putting up 5.2 assists to Valentine’s 4.4 a game.
Trice has been especially hot during the tournament, putting up 23 points against the stalwart Virginia defense, and another 24 points versus the Sooners. He’s also gone 13-for-32 from three-point range, and averaged 4.0 assists in the four tournament victories.
Valentine was equally effective from deep against Oklahoma, knocking down four threes en route to 18 points and eight rebounds.
Dawson’s scoring has dipped slightly in the last two games, but he’s continued his dominate work on the boards for the Spartans, racking up 11 rebounds apiece against Oklahoma and Louisville, and he’s totaled 11 blocks throughout the tournament.
Michigan State also got a huge boost in overtime against Louisville with junior guard Bryn Forbes coming off the bench for 33 minutes due to forward Gavin Schilling’s foul trouble, and scoring 14 points, including a 4-for-6 rate from deep.
"They're really good, that doesn't surprise me at all," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said to MLive.com. "They're going to show up every game with a great game plan, with a toughness and an unselfishness to play that they're not going to beat themselves."
The Spartans will need that sharpshooting against one of Duke’s most talented teams to date. The Blue Devil will roll out first-team All-American big man Jahlil Okafor, as well as fellow super freshmen in forward Justise Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones.
Duke owned the fourth highest-scoring offense in the country this season, notching 80.6 points, and despite their star power weren’t privy to bouts of selfishness. The Blue Devils are No. 21 in the country with 15.5 assists per game, with Jones averaging 5.8 dishes per game to go along with his 11.6 points and 3.5 rebounds.
A low-post force all season, standing at 6-foot-11 and 270 lbs., Okafor has put up 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds a game this season, but he has struggled a bit from the floor in Duke’s last two victories. Okafor scored 15 combined points in victories over No. 5 Utah and No. 2 Gonzaga, but beat up on No. 16 Robert Morris for 21 points, and No. 8 San Diego State for 26 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
Winslow has come molded nicely into the team’s second option during the tournament, with senior guard Quinn Cook also playing a critical role. Winslow picked up Okafor’s slack with 21 points and 10 rebounds against the Utes and another 16 points and five rebounds over the Bulldogs, while shooting 5-for-8 from three-point range.
Cook, the only senior in the starting lineup, has been very efficient slashing to the basket. Cook went a combined 12-for-14 from the free throw line in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, and put on an incredible shooting display against Robert Morris by nailing six of his 10 three-point attempts.
Betting Odds: Duke -5.5
Over/Under: 139 points
Early Prediction: Duke over Michigan State, 70-61