Duke is set to take on Michigan State in the opening game of the Final Four. To learn more about the Spartans, Joe Rexrode of the Detriot Free Press joins us. Follow Joe on Twitter here, and check out his work here (including a great profile of Tom Izzo):
1. It seems like a lifetime ago, but Duke did play Michigan State in the Blue Devils' third game of the year, beating the Spartans 81-71. How has MSU changed since then?
Like most teams, MSU has improved through the season, especially on the defensive end. But the Spartans’ season really turned Feb. 10 when Tom Izzo made freshman Tum Tum Nairn his starting point guard and moved Travis Trice off the ball. He also made Trice the sixth man for a while, but the important part of that move was having Trice focus on scoring over running the team, and getting him away from guarding the opposing point guard. MSU’s defense and Trice’s production have flourished since then. MSU also is getting more out of Bryn Forbes, Marvin Clark Jr. and its big men since the first meeting. Considering the lack of elite defenders – other than Branden Dawson – it has been surprising to see the Spartans lock up teams the way they have in the past few weeks.
2. Mike Krzyzewski said he thought guard Travis Trice was playing as well as anyone in the NCAA Tournament. What has Trice done of late that has the Duke coach thinking along those lines?
It’s almost weird. I’d say Trice probably has eight dunks since mid-March. That’s about twice as many as he had in his whole career up to that point. He said he has a “burst of energy” lately, and he’s pulling everything out of his bag. He’s got a nasty crossover to a stepback three-pointer and he’s finishing on the drive like never before as a college player. He’s hitting mid-range shots, making great passes as always, playing the best defense of his life … you name it. And he’s really embraced the captain role, especially in the past few weeks. Trice was brought to MSU to essentially be a backup point guard and has exceeded all outside expectations. As he points out, though, MSU could have had more of this if not for health problems that cost him two summers.
3. To me, I think the most interesting individual matchup is Branden Dawson vs. Justise Winslow. Do you agree, and how do you see MSU trying to contain Winslow?
Absolutely agree. It’s a fascinating matchup and we didn’t get to see it much the first time around, not with Amile Jefferson starting at the 4 and MSU mostly guarding Winslow with Denzel Valentine. This is fascinating. Dawson has been able to guard 1 through 4 his entire career, but he’s best against guys with perimeter skills – beefier forwards can get him in the post at times. He has the size to contest Winslow’s shot and the lateral quickness to cut off his drive. The big issue for MSU is that it relies heavily on Dawson as a help defender, and this isn’t the kind of opponent he’s going to be able to help off much. On the other side of the court, look for Dawson to try to post up Winslow and make him work that way. Dawson is not a shooter but he’s a world-class athlete and he can score a bit on the block.
4. The Spartans don't have a stud big man, but they have Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling to run at Jahlil Okafor. How do you envision Izzo choosing to guard Okafor? We've seen some teams commit to single covering him, letting Okafor get his points while trying to stop everyone else, and then other teams have doubled him in the post.
Yeah, Tom Izzo will be more like that, he’s never been a big believer in doubling the post. He fears the three-point shot and Duke has a lot of guys who can hit it. So I’d expect to see MSU leaving its centers on islands for the most part, with guards digging down whenever possible to give Okafor pause. Costello and Schilling actually did a pretty good job against Okafor in the post in the first meeting, he had to work and hit contested shots. He did get them a few times rolling on ball screens, and the Spartans will have to shore that up, but they’d rather see him get 25 than Duke’s guards get clean looks all night.
5. What needs to happen for Michigan State to win? And, if you'd like to go on the record with a prediction, here is your chance...
For the Spartans to win, they’re going to have to play their absolute best offensive game. They will play tough defense and make Duke work, but the Blue Devils have too many answers in different spots on the court to be stifled. The Spartans are going to have to outscore Duke by taking extremely good care of the ball, shooting like crazy from outside and running, running, running. Look for MSU to push the ball off makes and misses and try to make its depth matter. Ultimately, I think Duke will pull out a close game.
Thanks to Joe for his time.