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Michigan State Spartans vs. Duke Blue Devils Matchup to Watch: Can Branden Dawson Handle Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor?

The most versatile Spartans defender is going to have his hands full in Saturday's national semifinal.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

When you talk about Duke basketball nowadays, the conversation starts with star freshman Jahlil Okafor. Despite his relative inexperience, Okafor is a candidate for the Wooden Award as best player in the nation and is averaging 17.5 points as well as 8.7 rebounds per game.

Lately, though, Okafor has shifted into a lesser role in the Duke offense. In South Regional wins over Utah and Gonzaga, the big man attempted a total of 16 shots and scored a total of 15 points. Opponents have succeeded in not allowing Okafor to dominate, but the Blue Devils haven't missed a beat. A big reason for that is the play of Justise Winslow.

The "other" Duke freshman is an athletic swingman whose game has started to shine in the NCAA Tournament with back-to-back double-doubles against San Diego State and Utah. It's not Winslow's ability to grab misses and play above the rim that really scares opponents, though. His three-point shot has been lethal lately with five makes combined in his last two games. Not many players have both the rebounding and shooting ability that Winslow has, and that makes him a tough matchup for anyone.

The player likely tasked with guarding Winslow for Michigan State will be Branden Dawson. While the senior has the size and athleticism to contain Winslow on the boards, the real challenge for Dawson will be bolting out to the three-point line to take away his long range shots. Dawson is quick enough on his feet to guard smaller players as well as large ones, but Winslow is a tougher challenge when you consider that Dawson might also have to help out on Okafor if the phenom is one-on-one in the post. Opponents haven't been able to slow down Okafor by using just one defender.

The Okafor/Winslow combination is going to be the toughest defensive challenge for Michigan State, even as Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones threaten to score from the perimeter. It will be interesting to see how Spartan big men Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling handle Okafor in the post. Both players are great help defenders and rebounders, but defending a big man like Okafor who can create his own shot is a totally different challenge.

One of the only players who can compare to Okafor is someone that Michigan State has seen before: Frank Kaminsky. On March 1 against the Spartans, Frank the Tank scored 31 points. He then added 19 more in the Big Ten Tournament rematch. The last thing Michigan State wants is for Okafor to get into that kind of groove, and that's why Dawson will be its most important piece defensively. He's got to know when to help out on Okafor and when to bounce outside and help on Winslow and company.

If Dawson can make the right decisions in the post and use his strength to keep Winslow off the glass, Michigan State might stand a chance of slowing down a potent Duke attack that has more ways to put the ball in the hoop than any other team in the country.