Michigan State's run to the Final Four was considered the most unlikely of all four teams, with the Spartans underachieving throughout the season and staying off the radar for most of the season. In typical Tom Izzo fashion, though, the Spartans took care of business in March and found a way to Indianapolis where they would draw a Duke Blue Devils program that had already beaten them by ten earlier in the season.
On paper Duke was the favorite and the team most people saw winning on Saturday night, but the unlikely success Tom Izzo has achieved time and time again in the postseason led to at least some level of belief that the Spartans were capable of advancing to the title game on Monday night. And heading into the first media timeout that belief was looking pretty promising as State hit their first four threes and jumped out to an early 14-6 lead. While the Spartans came out of the gate on fire, the wheels quickly came off the bus immediately after.
While the Blue Devils fell behind early over the first four minutes, it should be noted that Duke didn't miss a shot until almost five minutes into the game. Also, while the Spartans were capable of converting from outside early, the Blue Devils defense would hold the Spartans to a measly 11 points the rest of the half. What started off as an eight point deficit ended as a double digit halftime lead with the Blue Devils rolling throughout the second half on their way to an easy 20 point victory over the Spartans.
So that being said, what did we learn from the first semifinal game on Saturday?
Michigan State's early success from three was actually detrimental
Wait, what? I know it's weird to say that a team starting off hot and shooting the ball effectively was a "bad" thing, but it's the truth when you look at how the game played out. While Michigan State used four quick threes to open up an early eight point lead, absolutely nothing worked down the stretch and Duke was able to pick up the win quite easily for a national semifinal. The impressive 4 of 4 start from beyond the arc meant little overall as the Spartans would follow up by going 3 of 16 the rest of the night. At times Michigan State tried relying a bit too heavily on the three ball and when the shots wouldn't fall their offense went south, allowing Duke to roar back and put the game out of reach early in the second half.
Turnovers key reason the Spartans are going home
Committing 14 turnovers against #1 seeded Duke in the Final Four is an easy way to lose a game, especially when you only shoot 40% from the field, lost the rebounding battle and attempted 21 less free throws than your opponent. While the impact turnovers played is pretty obvious, turnovers also killed the initial surge out the gate by Michigan State. After hitting their first four threes Michigan State would finally miss a three, followed by three possessions in a row that ended with a turnover, helping kickstart a drought of about six minutes. Then with State needing to get off to a good start in the second half to get back into the thick of things, the Spartans ended up missing a three and committing two turnovers on their first three possessions. With Duke scoring on all three possessions to open the second, the deficit was 17 before you knew it and the Spartans were never able to cut it to single digits.
Supporting cast left a lot to be desired
We all know about how great Travis Trice had been this tournament. We also knew that Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson have been key players for the Spartans all season. And last night that held true with the trio scoring 50 points and shooting a solid 50% from the field. As for the rest of the team...well the remaining cast would only make four field goals and shoot a horrid 21% from the field. When everything was said and done, Bryn Forbes, Marvin Clark Jr., Lourawls Nairn Jr., Gavin Schilling, Alvin Ellis III and Colby Wollenman would play a combined 81 minutes. In those 81 minutes the group would make only one of their 14 field goal attempts. While Trice, Valentine and Dawson were able to make shots and try to get the Spartans back into the game, the rest of the roster was largely lifeless and completely useless against Duke.
I mentioned it earlier in the week, but the Spartans were a considerably better team than their record indicated and would have won quite a few more games if they could only hit their free throws. I also mentioned free throws could be key if the game was close and while the Spartans were only 62.5% from the line, it meant little on Saturday. The reality is Michigan State was sloppy with the ball, couldn't hit anything from outside after the first media timeout and saw absolutely nothing from anyone on their roster outside of Trice/Valentine/Dawson. Maybe, just maybe, in the Big Ten the Spartans could have overcame that and found a way to pick up a win. However, facing off against a Duke team that shot 52% from the field, attempted 21 more free throws, won the rebounding battle and didn't turn the ball over...that spelled doom for the Spartans.
It was an impressive run for Tom Izzo and company, but the Spartans simply played a horrible 36 minutes to close out their season and the end result was what you would expect from that kind of performance.