Duke’s win over Michigan State was so long ago and so early in the season, it almost doesn’t help the Blue Devils now.
At least that was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s message to his players a few days before their rematch with the Spartans in the Final Four on Saturday night in Indianapolis.
“I think it could have a negative impact if our guys to remember them for who they were then,” Krzyzewski said.
Duke beat Michigan State 81-71 on Nov. 18 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, a few blocks from where the two teams will meet Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
That was the second game of the season for Michigan State and the third for Duke and the first big stage for Duke’s trio of freshman stars.
Michigan State was still in the process of learning how to play without Adreian Payne and Gary Harris, the leaders from the 2014 Elite Eight team who are both in the NBA.
The Spartans stumbled through some rough spots during the first half of the season. They lost at home to Texas Southern, 71-64 in overtime, on Dec. 20. They lost at Nebraska, 79-77 on Jan. 24, to fall to 4-3 in the Big Ten.
But senior guard Travis Trice and senior forward Branden Dawson stepped up in February, with help from junior guard Denzel Valentine, and the Spartans won eight of their final 11 Big Ten games.
Then in the Big Ten tournament, they beat Ohio State and Maryland, a pair of NCAA tournament teams, before losing to Wisconsin, 80-69 in overtime, in the title game.
In the NCAA tournament, Trice has continued to lead the way. He had averaged 19.7 points in the first four games and 4.0 assists with maybe the highlight being 23 points against Virginia’s stingy defense.
“I think he has been the best player in the tournament, of any team,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t think there’s a kid playing any better than that kid.”
Trice had 15 points and eight assists in the first meeting with Duke, but the Spartans struggled from the 3-point line (5 of 20).
Duke had the better point guard in the first meeting. Freshman Tyus Jones had 17 points, all in the second half, and was part of an incredible shooting effort by the Blue Devils. Duke was 27 of 50 (54 percent) overall and 7 of 14 from 3.
Duke led by 10 early in the second half before Michigan State cut the lead to 51-48 with 12 minutes left. Jones scored 14 points after Michigan State made it a three-point game.
“I didn’t play well in the first half and that’s just a learning experience to bounce back in the second half,” Jones said. “Luckily we were able to win.”
That second half, and how he took over, launched Jones’ reputation as a big-game player.
Senior Quinn Cook, who scored 19 points, said the Duke players knew how good Jones was from summer and fall practices but there was something different about that game.
“To see it in his first big-time game as a freshman, it was amazing to watch,” Cook said.
Jones, who was named the most outstanding player of the South Region, has saved his biggest moments for the biggest games. He had 15 points and six assists in Duke’s 66-52 win over Gonzaga to get the Blue Devils to the Final Four.
He averaged 23 points in Duke’s pair of wins over North Carolina and had 22 points each in Duke’s wins at Wisconsin and St. John’s.
For the season, Jones averages 11.6 points per game.
November does seem like a long time ago and Michigan State is definitely different, Cook said, but there’s one part of that game he hopes carries over.
“It kind of started a trend because every big game (Tyus) performs,” Cook said. “That was the first one. We’re going to need another one from him on Saturday.”
Play it again?
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his players downplayed the meaning of the Blue Devils’ November win over Michigan State but there’s no denying how good Duke has been in return games this season.
W, 92-90 (OT)