Luke DeCock

With one game to go, Duke keeps getting better

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski speaks with his team during a second-half timeout in the game agains Michigan State. From left:Matt Jones (13), Krzyzewski, Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski speaks with his team during a second-half timeout in the game agains Michigan State. From left:Matt Jones (13), Krzyzewski, Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Tyus Jones came back toward the bench, victory assured, and Mike Krzyzewski met him there, still up on the elevated court. As Krzyzewski hugged him, he whispered in his ear, “Keep going, Tyus. Keep going.”

Duke just keeps on going. Duke just keeps on getting better. And with one game to play, the most important game of any of their careers, the Blue Devils may yet have untapped potential to achieve.

It’s a scary thought.

After an early stumble Saturday against Michigan State, the Blue Devils erupted to blow away the Spartans, 81-61. Whatever Michigan State did, Duke did better, because Duke keeps getting better and better and better, on the verge of a national title.

“We came here for that reason, and we’ve worked hard all year. And we have one game left,” Jones said.

And for the eighth time, a Triangle team yet again ushered Tom Izzo and Michigan State out of the NCAA tournament. Izzo is 1-8 against Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State in the tournament, 0-4 in the Final Four.

Saturday was not going to be his night, either.

It didn’t start out that way. Duke was out of sorts on offense and scrambly on defense as Michigan State rained 3-pointers. The Blue Devils took the first TV timeout to regroup. After that? Look out.

“The last 36 minutes, we played great basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s the best we’ve played in the tournament, and we’ve played really well.”

This is a frightening thing. Duke exploited all of its options on offense and played traditional pressure man-to-man defense, something this team has struggled with because of its youth and inexperience. Thirty-eight games later, this team isn’t as young or inexperienced as it was in January or February or even March.

Michigan State never had a chance.

The lessons of a long season are starting to take hold, especially on defense. Jahlil Okafor is playing with confidence at both ends. Jones and Justise Winslow and Quinn Cook were relentless attacking the rim, drawing foul after foul.

They did the things veteran players do, over and over again. They had their one moment of youth, falling behind 14-6, and then they shrugged it off, the way you can only learn through difficult experience.

“I don’t think we started the game off with the intensity we needed,” Cook said. “A couple times, I know myself, I tried to cheat a ball screen and (Travis) Trice and (Denzel) Valentine make you pay. We got down early, and Coach got on us. The last 36 minutes, we played one of our better games.”

Michigan State had experience and poise. Duke had talent. And now it has experience and poise. The Spartans didn’t stand a chance.

So now Duke will play for its fifth national championship, in the same building where it won its fourth national championship. That 2010 team was full of juniors and seniors, Jon Scheyer and Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Its experience was its greatest strength.

This team has more freshmen (four) than juniors and seniors (three), but they’re growing up fast, growing up with each game, still getting better this late in the season. Krzyzewski pointed out how they talk more on defense, because they understand it now. They’re no longer learning concepts. They’re employing them.

How much better can Duke get by Monday?

“I wish they gave us a week to get ready for the game,” Krzyzewski said. “I think we would improve.”

Duke only gets one day of practice. It’s a short turnaround for a team that only has eight players. But the message is the same: Keep going. There’s only one game left. Keep going.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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