Duke vs. Michigan State: Better Lace ‘Em Up

Duke v Michigan StateMichigan State.  Tough, physical, hard-nosed, defensive minded, board-pounding Michigan State.   Big 10 football, but in short pants.  Everyone has the same image of the Spartans under Tom Izzo.  On the other hand, many have a quite different image of Duke:  finesse, highly skilled but reliant on outside shooting, weak rebounding, not what they used to be defensively.  Not exactly winning with smoke and mirrors, but the type of team that will have great difficulties with a pound-it-out squad like the Spartans in the post-season.

Many Duke fans have very bad memories of the last time the two teams met in NCAA Tournament play, in the Sweet 16 in 2005.  The fifth-seeded Spartans outmuscled junior J.J. Redick and Duke in the second half, and broke away from a halftime tie to upset the top-seeded Blue Devils 78-68 in Austin, Texas.  The Spartans forced 22 turnovers that night, held Redick to 13 points, and outrebounded Duke 16-9 on the offensive glass in what would be the last game in a Duke uniform for Daniel Ewing and Shavlik Randolph.

The memories are better of the last overall meeting.  That was early last season, in November, in Madison Square Garden, when Coach K set the all-time Division I wins record as Duke beat MSU 74-69. The Blue Devils went on a 20-1 run to take a 20 point lead in the second half and, though the Spartans made the final score respectable, the outcome was never in doubt from the midway point of the second half.

What is the history of this series, and how does this Michigan State team compare to some of the others that Duke has faced?

The record shows that Duke has had great success against the Spartans in the K vs. Izzo era.  The teams have met seven times, and Duke is 6-1 in those meetings, with the only defeat of course being that 2005 tournament loss.  The Blue Devils, with an absolute powerhouse team, beat the Spartans twice in the 1998-99 season.  Once was in the “Great Eight” in Chicago in the earlygoing, by six, and then again by six in the Final Four in Tampa/St. Pete.    The teams met in the Big 10/ACC Challenge in both 2003 and 2004, with Duke winning in the Breslin Center by 22 in 2003-04 and in Cameron by seven the following year.  The teams met in the Challenge again in 2010-11, when Duke prevailed by five in Cameron, and then came last year’s duel in Madison Square Garden.  So K is 6-1 vs. Izzo, 1-1 in the tournament.

How does this Michigan State team stack up, at least statistically, to the two teams that most Duke fans probably remember best – the 2005 team that eliminated the Devils in Austin, and last year’s team that Duke took care of in New York?  The short answer is that defensively, this year’s edition is similar in many respects to last year’s, and both are clearly better than the 2005 squad that throttled Duke in the tournament.  Last year’s and this year’s teams are a little better on the defensive boards too.  This year’s Spartans get steals and block shots more frequently than either of those previous teams we’re looking at. Gulp.

Offensively, though, Izzo’s team this year is inferior to both his 2005 and 2012 teams.

First, as defense is always first in East Lansing, the defensive numbers:




Points per game




Points per possession








3 pt FG made/game




3 pt FG%




Effective FG%




Def Reb %




Off Reb % surrendered




Steal %




Blocked Shot %




Turnover %




So this defense is obviously going to be very tough on the Blue Devils.  The good news is:  Duke is a more efficient team than they were in either 2005 or 2012; we shoot it better, both overall and from 3 point land; we’re less reliant on the 3 for our points than we were in either of those prior years.  We get more assists than we did in those years, we turn it over less, and therefore our assist to turnover ratio is much, much better. On the other side of the ledger, our offensive rebounding is far off the standard set in 2005 (thanks to a guy named Shelden Williams) and significantly off of last year’s numbers as well.

Last year’s Michigan State defense was much more similar to this year’s than was the 2005 defense.  We scored 74 points on just 43.6% shooting in that win last year.  Those shooting numbers were aided greatly by Andre Dawkins banging home 6 of 10 3-pointers, and dragged down by Austin Rivers going just 1 of 7 from the field.  Our season averages were 77 points on 45.6% shooting.  This year, Duke averages just shy of 78 points per game.  If we play at about the same level as we did last year against the Spartans, and of course the makeup of the team is different and there are all sorts of other variables, but if we play at about that level, we should be able to get up into the upper 70’s in points, which would force MSU to have a really big game offensively, for them, in order to beat us.


OK so what about Michigan State’s offense?




Points per game




Points per possession








3 pt FG made/game




3 pt FG%




Effective FG%




Off Reb %




Assist %




Asst/TO ratio




Turnover %




So this team is not as good, statistically speaking, on offense as either the 2004-05 team or last year’s squad.  They don’t shoot it as well, they don’t succeed as often on the offensive boards, their assists are down, their assist-to-turnover ratio is down, and consequently their scoring is down.  They’re operating at a level closer to last year’s team than to their 2005 team.  Last year, Duke held MSU to 69 points on 44% shooting.  And like I said, they’re not as good offensively as they were last year.

Moreover, defensively, Duke is better than they were in 2012.  We are giving up less total points this year than last, less points per possession, fewer total FG, a full 2% less in overall FG%, a lower 3 point FG%, fewer assists, a worse assist-to-turnover ratio, we’re getting more blocks and forcing more turnovers.  The only thing we’re not doing as well is preventing offensive rebounds, but really the difference from last year to this is very minor, statistically speaking.  Of course if we play anywhere near as well defensively as we did against Creighton on Sunday night, the Spartans are going to have a very hard time keeping up with us.  But even if both teams play close to their averages this season, Michigan State may have a hard time outpointing the Devils.

Duke v Michigan StateBut before just leaving it at that, a little closer look at last year’s game may provide some insights into what we may see on Friday night in Indianapolis.  Again, both teams have lost key players off of last year’s squad, and gained important new contributors.  That’s always the case in college hoops.  How did the game really play out last year?

The first half was a see-saw affair.  MSU took a 6 point lead midway through the first half, Duke reclaimed the lead, the Spartans took it back, Duke regained it, and after Branden Wood hit a jumper in the last second, Duke went into the locker room with a one point lead.  Duke endured two long stretches without a made field goal in the first half, one of five minutes, and then the last four minutes as well.  Michigan State was getting a lot done with Draymond Green inside, and a number of other layups and tip-ins by the likes of Branden Dawson, Adrien Payne, and Derrick Nix, all of whom are back for the Spartans this year.  Andre Dawkins’ four three-pointers en route to 14 first half points were the heart of Duke’s offense.  Seth Curry chipped in with nine, but Austin Rivers only managed three free throws.  On the inside, Duke was stifled.  Mason Plumlee had one hoop and a couple of free throws, and Miles just a single free throw.

Duke opened up a seven point lead in the first four minutes of the second half, aided by two more three-pointers by Dawkins and one by Ryan Kelly.  MSU was continuing to work the ball inside, but weren’t able to keep up with Duke’s shooting, as they missed a number of close-in opportunities.  When Seth Curry hit another three, and Dawkins a layup, Duke had extended its lead to 13.  Timeout Spartans.  Two more MSU turnovers followed the timeout, but Duke couldn’t add to its advantage, and Keith Appling finally broke a 4 ½ minute drought with a free throw.  But the Blue Devils continued to extend the lead from there, reaching a high of 20, at 61-41, at the 9:22 mark, as Duke really was hitting on all cylinders.  Outside shooting by Dawkins and Kelly, Curry and Kelly getting to the line, Duke running off of Michigan State turnovers.  All of it was working.

Duke did cool off, but the damage was done.  Green continued to work hard, and with some success down low.  The Blue Devils got a little sloppy with the ball, and Michigan State narrowed the gap all the way to five, with Keith Appling getting the bulk of his 22 points late – including nine in the last minute alone.  But it was too long a row to hoe for the Spartans, and Duke prevailed, allowing Coach K to bask in the celebration with Coach Knight and the many other well-wishers in attendance at The World’s Most Famous Arena.

The Blue Devils played well overall in the game against a quality opponent, but nevertheless there were some areas of concern.  Duke got almost nothing inside against big bodied Green and Nix.  Mason Plumlee was 1 of 3 from the field for 7 points, and he had no offensive rebounds in 32 minutes.  Miles had 1 point and 4 rebounds in just 14 minutes.  For the Spartans, Green muscled inside but just didn’t convert nearly enough, going just 4 of 15 from the field, and Nix was worse off the bench, 1 for 7.  Payne had 12 rebounds and Green 7, but MSU only out-rebounded Duke overall 31-28.

Mason has struggled against burly wide-bodies like Nix.  He has had a hard time against Reggie Johnson more than once, and Gregory Echinique caused problems as well.  Against a guy like Nix, who goes 6’9” and 270 pounds, rather than trying to move him off a spot, Mason would be wise to use his superior athleticism and go around him or over him, not through him.

Appling is a streaky shooter and ballhandler and may be susceptible to pressure.  He’s the leading scorer, but only shoots 41% and 31% on 3’s. The guy who worries me is Adreian Payne.  The 6’10” 240 pound junior is an inside/outside threat, shoots 55%, and is athletic.  He also leads the team in rebounding with 7.5 per game.  Great matchup with Ryan Kelly.  Gary Harris is one of the top freshmen in the nation, scoring 13 a game on 42% 3 point shooting, and he has good size at 6’4” and 205 pounds.  Sounds like an excellent challenge for Rasheed Sulaimon to take on.

All in all, should be a great ballgame.  Hopefully it won’t be called quite as tightly as was the Creighton game and the Devils can establish some kind of offensive flow.  If they can, and if they can play defense approaching the level they did against the Blue Jays, Duke will stand an excellent chance of surviving and advancing to the Elite Eight.