DURHAM — Immediately after Duke beat Creighton on Sunday, Mason Plumlee was asked what he knew about Michigan State.
I know theyre good, he said.
Hes right. Six of the Spartans eight losses this season were against teams still in the Sweet 16.
Here are five other things to know about the Spartans, whom Duke will face Friday at 9:45 p.m. in Indianapolis for a spot in the Elite 8:
• 1) Biggest concern: guard Gary Harris
Harris is a freshman shooting guard with the athleticism to break down a defense and drive to the hoop. This has been a problematic type of player for Duke all year (think Miamis Durand Scott and Marylands Dez Wells in those Duke losses). Harris averages 13.1 points per game and has the Spartans highest offensive efficiency rating at 116.4. He hits 46.5 percent of his shots, and 41.9 percent of his 3-pointers. Harris nets 45 percent of his points from behind the arc, so hes a shooter and a slasher.
At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Harris also has size. Expect Rasheed Sulaimon to start on him, and look for all of Dukes guards Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton and Seth Curry to rotate on him at times. Curry has been an effective defender, especially with a few days rest he held Temples Khalif Wyatt, who scored 31 points in the Owls loss to Indiana, to six points on 3-of-15 shooting on Dec. 9.
• 2) Biggest weakness: turnovers
The Spartans committed 17 turnovers against Valparaiso and 18 against Memphis. Thats a combined 35 compared to 18 for their opponents. A near 2:1 ratio wont get it done against Duke. And those two games arent exceptions: Michigan State ranks 234th in the nation in turnovers per possession.
Their fix is to have point guard Keith Appling handling the ball, who averages 3.4 assists against 2.3 turnovers. Appling, who leads the Spartans in scoring (13.3 left the game against Memphis with a shoulder injury, but he is expected to play against Duke. But dont be surprised if the Blue Devils try to make someone other than Appling bring the ball up the floor.
• 3) The Spartans have the ability to work inside-out
While Harris and Appling lead the team in scoring, physical center Derrick Nix had a productive first weekend. Nix, the lone senior on the roster, averaged 18 points and 11.5 rebounds in Michigan States two victories. The 6-foot-9, 270-pound Nix, 6-foot-10 forward Adreian Payne and 6-foot-6 guard Branden Dawson present a formable rebounding challenge for Duke, too, as Michigan State ranked fourth in the Big 10 in offensive rebounding percentage, collecting 36.7 percent of their misses. Fast-break opportunities for Duke might be limited, as guards might have to crash the boards in attempt to limit second-chance opportunities.
• 4) The Spartans finished tied for second in the Big 10
Contrary to what Charles Barkley proclaimed, the Big 10 is the best conference in college basketball this year. For proof, consider that the conference still has four teams alive Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State and each is a serious championship contender. The Spartans, who rank fourth in strength of schedule and eighth in RPI, went 13-5 in conference play with all but one loss (Minnesota) coming to the other three teams still playing. Indiana swept the Spartans, Ohio State went 2-1, including a victory in the Big 10 tournament semifinals, and rival Michigan was 1-1.
• 5) Tom Izzo is the coach
You might know him as Mr. March, as Izzos teams have a reputation of peaking late and making deeper-than-predicted runs. Izzo is known for taking his team on the road this year the Spartans played in Germany and then four days later in Atlanta and scheduling tough nonconference games. As a result, the Spartans have made the Final Four six times in the past 14 seasons.
Dukes Mike Krzyzewski, though, sets the standard in coaching, whether its counted by overall wins or tournament performance (Krzyzewski holds the record for tournament wins and ranks second all-time with his .771 winning percentage). And hes had the upper hand in head-to-head competition with Izzo, going 6-1. Krzyzewski and Izzo are 1-1 in NCAA tournament play, with Duke beating Michigan State in the 1999 Final Four and the Spartans winning in the 2005 Sweet 16. The postseason rubber match comes Friday.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley