The irony was not lost on Tom Izzo. If there had been one recent thread in his inability to beat Duke, a drought that is now almost 12 years, it was that so many of his veteran Michigan State teams were derailed by Duke’s very young, very raw talent. Izzo didn’t have to mention Kyrie Irving’s 31-point explosion in 2010, or the Final Four loss to the Blue Devils’ freshmen in 2015, but it was clearly on his mind.
And as Izzo mulled over yet another loss to a Triangle powerhouse – that makes 13 straight now against Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams – he could only shake his head that his team built around four talented freshmen was utterly undone by a six-man Duke rotation that had only one freshman and all the poise Izzo is accustomed to being able to rely upon.
“Usually they’re the team with the younger guys and we’re the team with the veterans,” Izzo said.
Duke has talented freshmen of its own, but they remain at the end of the bench, healing. Until then, they’ll win games like this: By keeping their heads when those around them are losing theirs and so on. That was the difference between two very talented teams, one deep but very young, the other experienced but very thin, in a fiercely fought 78-69 Duke win Tuesday.
Jayson Tatum may be back soon, and Harry Giles and Marques Bolden may not be far behind him. For now, what the Blue Devils have is several older players with hard-earned experience, a resume that includes not only the 2015 championship but the Mercer upset, the opposite ends of the NCAA tournament spectrum.
The Spartans have four star freshmen, starting with forward Miles Bridges – in Krzyzewski’s words, “a big-time talent” – and swingman Joshua Langford isn’t far behind. But Michigan State has only two healthy players left from that 2015 Final Four, and seven of the 10 who played Tuesday have either no postseason experience or were part of a similar upset at the hands of Middle Tennessee State. In this reversal of roles, Duke found an advantage.
“We’ve seen it all – lost in the first round, won a championship, Sweet 16,” Duke senior guard Matt Jones said. “There’s not really a situation we haven’t been in.”
Michigan State had played in the middle of two oceans, in Hawaii and the Bahamas, but this was the Spartans’ first true road game, and it showed. They had been surrounded by water, but never by a frenzied crowd like this. The Spartans led early in the second half, but when the Blue Devils sensed weakness, they struck.
An 11-0 run midway through the second half was enough to put the Blue Devils ahead for good, almost entirely because of Michigan State turnovers, forced and unforced alike. Funny thing was, while the game was slipping away from the Spartans, they had made five of their previous six shots. They just couldn’t get out of their own way.
Duke had a lot to do with that. Jones had been waiting all game to jump an inbounds pass, based on the scouting report that Michigan State likes to inbound quickly. He stole one from Bridges as the run went from seven to nine.
“We kind of saw it in their faces,” Jones said. “They started arguing more. And we came together and we finally made shots.”
It was a particularly tough night on the uber-talented Bridges, who missed at least two dunks and seemed baffled by both the crowd and the officiating, taking bad shots interspersed with bad body language. Izzo said it wasn’t the hardest Bridges has played, but that seemed as much a mental issue as a physical one. It might have been a different result on a neutral court, or in East Lansing, but not in Cameron, where the Blue Devils fed off their crowd and the Spartans were rattled.
Coming in, and into the second half, this seemed like the most legitimate danger Duke’s 16-year nonconference home winning streak has faced in a while. Duke’s veterans wouldn’t let that happen. Afterward, Izzo sounded almost wistful as he looked over the Duke half of the box score, talking about Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson and Jones. Krzyzewski didn’t need to be reminded.
“Our older guys know how to win when you’re tired,” Krzyzewski said. “They don’t give up the ship. The white flag doesn’t come up. God bless ‘em. I’ve got tough kids. And they beat tough kids.”
It’ll go in the books as yet another Michigan State loss against Duke or Carolina, a hoodoo that’s starting to defy belief. The Spartans and Blue Devils reversed roles Tuesday, but the result remained the same.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock