Throw out the meaningless stats.
Mike Krzyzewski is 8-1 against Tom Izzo (2-1 in the NCAA Tournament). For all his success, Izzo is just 2-4 in Final Four appearances. The Duke Blue Devils clobbered the Michigan State Spartans 81-71 back in November.
None of that matters now.
Forget about the results of games that happened when players like Duke’s Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones were just three years old. And forget about what happened in the Champions Classic all the way back in November when the two schools were playing in just their second and third games respectively. When the ball tips at 6:09 p.m. Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium these will be two entirely different teams.
Coach K brings his youngest team ever to the Final Four, though you would not know it by watching them play. Duke has played with an incredible amount of poise throughout the season and entered the tournament as hot as any team not named Kentucky.
Led by a trio of very talented freshmen, the Blue Devils pack a ferocious punch on offense. Duke’s point totals in the tourney (70.5 ppg) may be down from its gaudy regular season average (80.6 ppg) but the Blue Devils have already faced two of the best defenses in the nation in San Diego State (2nd in points allowed) and Utah (9th in points allowed).
The combination of Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones have combined to score well over half of Duke’s points in its four tournament games. The Spartans chances of winning will hinge on their ability to slow down this three-headed monster. While Winslow was his team’s leading scorer in Duke’s triumphs in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, it is Jahlil Okafor who should really scare MSU. The 6-foot-11 national player of the year candidate was quiet in the two aforementioned wins, scoring just 15 total points, but he was battling against a legitimate 7-footer in each contest.
Michigan State lacks that kind of size, and will need a strong effort from all its big men to try and contain Okafor. Matt Costello is the Spartans tallest player at 6-foot-9, but has battled foul trouble in almost every game so far in the tournament. Izzo will likely need a big performance from the spring-loaded ball of muscle and kinetic energy that is Branden Dawson to help slow the ACC player of the year. Despite only standing 6-foot-6 Dawson has shown the ability to effect much larger opponents, and has already compiled 11 blocks in the tournament.
Outside the paint, something is going to have to give between these two titans of March. Duke enters the game as one of the best shooting teams in the country and has hit 42.8-percent of its looks from 3-point range during the tournament. Meanwhile Michigan State has ratcheted up its defensive effort in the tourney and has held its opponents to 33.9-percent field goal shooting, and a preposterous 27.1-percent from long range. To put that in perspective, Duke made almost as many 3-pointers in it’s last game against Gonzaga (10) as Michigan State has allowed in the entire tournament (16).
Another key for the Spartans will be limiting Duke’s second chance points. Michigan State has given up double-digit offensive rebounds to all four of its tournament opponents, allowing an average of 14.75 offensive rebounds per game. Giving extra chances to a team as offensively gifted as the Blue Devils could prove fatal to MSU’s title hopes. Duke has not been particularly strong on the offensive glass thus far in the tournament, pulling in 7.75 offensive rebounds per game. The Spartans simply cannot allow that number to swell, allowing for easy put-backs, or kick-outs to open 3-point shooters.
Offensively Michigan State should continue to do what has taken it this far, keep heaving the rock from deep. The Spartans have actually been operating similarly to the NBA’s Houston Rockets in the tournament in terms of where they look to get their points from. Of the 268 points MSU has scored in four tourney games, only 49 have come from mid-range. This is while 37.3-percent of the team’s shots have come from beyond the arc. Travis Trice, the East Region’s Most Valuable Player, has taken more than half of his shots from 3-point range.
While this may seem like an inefficient way to operate offensively, more and more teams are adopting this statistics driven style of play. As Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry pointed out in an article about James Harden…"The act of generating 3-point offense has just as much to do with playmaking and assisting as it does with actually knocking down those shots; 84 percent of the league’s triples are assisted."
While this is clearly an NBA related stat, the same principles apply to the college game. So it should come as no surprise then that Michigan State is fourth in the nation in assists, averaging 17.1 per game.
This will no doubt be the toughest test the Spartans have faced, and they will need their best effort to send Tom Izzo to his third championship game. The quasi-Cinderella run has Izzo thinking of the team who eliminated his last year though.
"He got on a roll, had a guard that took control," Izzo said of Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie. "Kevin did a great job. Not only beat us but went on to win a national championship as a 7 seed. But can history repeat itself? You never know."