Duke (33-4) vs. Michigan State (27-11)
They say the importance of guard play is magnified in March – and early April – and both teams have strong backcourts with freshmen in a leading role. Tyus Jones has been more instrumental to Duke’s success, but Lourawls Nairn has progressed nicely and has started Michigan State’s past 15 games.
The 6-foot-1 Jones (11.6 ppg, 5.7 apg) is a freshman but he hasn’t often played like it – especially in some of Duke’s most important games. He played all 40 minutes of the Blue Devils’ victory against Gonzaga in the South Regional final, and finished with 15 points and six assists.
The 5-10 Nairn (2.2 ppg, 2.3 apg), meanwhile, hasn’t put up gaudy numbers, but don’t let that fool you. His teammates and coaches rave about his leadership, and former Michigan State great Mateen Cleaves has said that Nairn reminds him of himself.
There are a lot of differences between this Duke team and ones that flamed out early in the NCAA tournament in 2012 and 2014. Quinn Cook’s leadership (and production), though, is right at the top of the list of reasons for Duke’s success.
The 6-2 Cook (15.5 ppg) wasn’t the most reliable and consistent of players earlier in his time at Duke, but his senior season has been special. He’s made 40.1 percent of his 3-point attempts and has scored in double figures in all but four games.
Equally as important has been his leadership. The chemistry issues that plagued Duke in 2012 and last season were nonexistent this year in large part because of Cook’s guidance.
The 6-foot Travis Trice (15.3 ppg, 5.1 apg), a senior co-captain, has been equally important to Michigan State’s success. He has come a ways during his four years at Michigan State. In his final season, has more than doubled his scoring and assist averages from what they were a year ago.
Trice earned Most Outstanding Player honors after leading Michigan State out of the East Regional and into the Final Four. He has been at his best in the NCAA tournament, where he’s averaged 19.7 points, and he’s second in the Big Ten in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.9).
Advantage: Michigan State
If Trice is Michigan State’s most important, valuable player, then Denzel Valentine (14.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) isn’t too far behind. Spartans coach Tom Izzo has compared Valentine’s leadership skills to those of Cleaves, Travis Walton and Draymond Green.
Valentine’s production as been equally as important – if not more so – than the intangibles he provides. The 6-5 Valentine is Michigan State’s best and most prolific 3-point shooter (he has made 41.1 percent of his attempts) and he’s known for his passing, too.
Matt Jones (6.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg), who has started 12 games, made four 3-pointers and scored 16 points in Duke’s victory against Gonzaga. He’s the least heralded member of the Blue Devils’ starting five but his shooting ability is an asset.
Advantage: Michigan State
The 6-6 Justise Winslow (12.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) has perhaps exceeded expectations during his freshman season and he has excelled especially in the NCAA tournament, where he’s averaged 16.6 points in Duke’s past three games.
Winslow does a lot of things well, and he ranks among Duke’s top three in scoring, rebounding, made field goals, made 3-pointers, assists and blocks. He faces a considerable challenge, though, in the 6-6 Branden Dawson (11.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg).
Dawson is the first player 6-6 or shorter to lead the Big Ten in rebounding since 1988. He’s known for his toughness and defensive ability, and he’s second in school history in career blocked shots.
Jahlil Okafor and Gavin Schilling both have Chicago roots, but the comparisons mostly end there.
The 6-11 Okafor (17.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg), a Chicago native, has been the best, most productive freshman in the country, and he’s been a national player of the year candidate since he stepped on campus.
The 6-9 Schilling (5.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg), a native of Germany, plays an average of 17 minutes for the Spartans. He hasn’t scored in double figures since he had 10 points against Michigan on Feb. 17.
Okafor, meanwhile, had scored in double figures in all but one game until finishing with six and nine points in Duke’s NCAA tournament victories against Utah and Gonzaga. Though he wasn’t as active offensively in those games, Okafor remains the focal point of Duke’s offense.
The 6-3 Bryn Forbes (8.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg) and the 6-9 Matt Costello (7 ppg, 5.2 ppg) both come off the bench for Michigan State, and both have played key roles at times in the Spartans’ success.
Forbes has started 24 games this season and has made at least one 3-pointer in 92 of his 102 college games. Behind Trice and Valetine, Forbes is Michigan State’s best perimeter shooter. Costello, who has started six games, can be a force on the inside – especially defensively. He’s sixth in school history with 103 career blocked shots.
Duke isn’t known for its depth and primarily uses three reserves: the 6-9 Amile Jefferson, the 7-foot Marshall Plumlee and the 6-4 Grayson Allen. Jefferson and Plumlee can give the Blue Devils a boost in the post, and Allen is capable of providing knocking down an outside shot. He has averaged just seven minutes in Duke’s past three games.
Advantage: Michigan State
The stakes don’t get any higher than this – at least not until Monday night, if the Blue Devils advance. Duke, which has been near the top of the rankings all season, expected to be here from the start, while Michigan State went through its share of adversity before its late-season surge.
Both teams are coached by two of the most respected men in the game. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo will be coaching in a Final Four for the seventh time, while Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is in the Final Four for the 12th time – which is tied for the most in history.
The Blue Devils and Spartans traveled different roads to Indianapolis, and they’re vastly different teams – with Duke mostly reliant on freshmen and Michigan State mostly reliant on a corps of veterans. Duke and Michigan State played back in November – an 81-71 Duke victory in Indianapolis – but both teams have evolved and changed since then.
Michigan State seems to be peaking while Duke hasn’t quite been at its best in its past two games.