2015 Final Four Preview & Prediction: Michigan State vs. Duke

    Duke’s return to the Final Four makes it an even dozen when it comes to surviving until the last weekend for head coach Mike Krzyzewski, so nobody is

    April 2, 2015

    Duke’s return to the Final Four makes it an even dozen when it comes to surviving until the last weekend for head coach Mike Krzyzewski, so nobody is stunned the Blue Devils have shown up in Indianapolis.

    Michigan State’s presence is a different story. The Spartans are losers of 11 games this season, and everyone considered this to be somewhat of a down year for head coach Tom Izzo and his guys. The past is prologue, however, and MSU has gone on a four-game run that has proven Izzo to be at the top of his game.

    Duke unquestionably brings more talent to the floor. The eight McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster play key roles, and the Blue Devils feature two or three future NBA lottery picks, depending on who you talk to. This is a Duke team built for April, a group that has lived in the shadow of Kentucky all season despite enjoying one of its best seasons ever. The Blue Devils can shoot, they can score, and they have yet to give up more than 57 points in this tournament.

    Michigan State may not have expected to be here, but this is a Spartans team that also isn’t just happy to be in Indy. They believe they can win the whole thing, and they won’t back down from anyone. Izzo won’t let them.

    Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of this matchup, which tips off at 6:09 p.m. ET Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

    Forwards

    Where do you start with Jahlil Okafor? He’s one of the best young big men to come into the college game in years, and there’s basically nothing he can’t do on the floor. He’s an effective post scorer, he can move away from the bucket and knock down the open jumper, he’s athletic enough to go to the rim with the ball or to make himself available for a pass. Okafor isn’t the greatest free-throw shooter around, and he can be a little loose with the ball, but he’s someone Duke relies on in the paint on just about every possession.

    Freshman Justise Winslow has exploded during the tourney, and his versatility and athleticism set him apart. He can score inside or out, he loves the transition game and is a decent passer to boot. He’s one of those guys who does everything well and creates mismatches inside. Winslow can run into foul trouble at times, which is a red flag.

    Michigan State’s game doesn’t start inside by any stretch. Yes, Branden Dawson is a scorer inside who also is a fantastic rebounder, but at 6-6, he doesn’t bring the same size to the floor as some of the other bigs in the Final Four. Dawson is relentless and a great defender, and he’s someone who must be accounted for on every possession. Still, he’s not a back-to-the-basket scorer who can make an impact on the low block.

    Helping Dawson inside will be Gavin Schilling, a 6-9 sophomore who brings plenty of bulk if not a ton of skills to the paint. He’s not a stiff. He just isn’t asked to make much of an impact offensively, and MSU certainly has better options than him on the floor. Still, he’s a good support rebounder who makes life difficult for opponents thanks to his strength.

    Advantage: Duke thanks to Okafor’s skills and Winslow’s versatility

    Guards

    We’ll go ahead and say it. This game is going to be won or lost in the backcourt.

    Duke’s three-guard lineup leans on Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook and Matt Jones to do the damage, and all three are capable of taking over games. Tyus Jones is the guy who runs the offense, and he has good vision and fantastic quickness to beat defenders off the dribble. Tyus can score, as well, so he’s not just a pass-first point. Look for him to get to the free-throw line plenty. Cook is Duke’s second-leading scorer and someone who does a bit of everything on the court. He makes himself available in the drive-and-kick game, and when opponents focus on Okafor too much inside, it’s Cook who slashes to the rim when Okafor passes out of the double team. Matt Jones is a step below his teammates in terms of production, but he’s still quick and does a great job of spacing the floor. He’s a solid 3-point shooter.

    Michigan State’s trio of Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Lourawls Nairn bring their own pile of problems to the floor for opponents. Trice is the star of the show, a scorer through and through who is always confident his next shot is going to go down. He has a nasty step-back jumper and can break down opponents off the dribble, but he’s not too selfish. Sure, he considers himself the No. 1 option, but he is willing to share the wealth.

    One of the wealthy is Denzel Valentine, a 6-5 junior who does everything on the court. He can score, he can shoot from the perimeter, he rebounds, he has point guard skills with the ball and he defends Trice is the lightning for MSU, but Valentine is the thunder. He’s the guy who can rip out a team’s heart with the clock winding down and just keeps coming. Freshman Lourawls Nairn defers to his teammates, but he has the speed and quickness to match Tyus Jones and will be asked to turn up his defense in this one. He has good vision and makes himself available to his teammates when he doesn’t have the ball.

    Advantage: Draw. That’s not a cop-out. Duke has more sheer talent, but MSU is more experienced and is crafty.

    Bench

    Duke doesn’t spend a lot of time going to its bench, but there isn’t a lack of talent next to Coach K. Marshall Plumlee is experienced and someone who isn’t going to back down from anyone, and he’s great at giving the Blue Devils some good minutes when they needed it most. Amile Jefferson is a forward who is plenty talented but limited offensively. Still, he is a fine rebounder who isn’t afraid to battle. Guard Grayson Allen doesn’t play a lot of minutes, but he can get to the free-throw line and is a nice option on the perimeter. All three were McDonald’s All-Americans and a threat to have a great game if they are overlooked.

    MSU asks a bit more from its bench than Duke, but there are three main pieces to the Spartans’ puzzle. Bryn Forbes comes off the bench and brings a lot of the same athleticism and swagger that Trice has on the court, and he can knock down the open three with a hand in his face. Forbes gets to the free-throw line and is a fantastic defender. Forward Matt Costello is a quality rebounder and is money when he gets the ball inside, and his strength allows him to power through contact. Guard Marvin Clark, Jr., is good for limited minutes, and although he won’t take over games, he won’t hurt the Spartans, either.

    Advantage: Duke, but not by much. The Blue Devils’ length is a plus.

    Coaches

    Mike Krzyzewski is one of the top five coaches of all-time, and there aren’t many people who will argue that. He is the only guy to ever score 1,000-plus wins at the Division I level, and even though he always brings a pile of talent to the floor, he also gets the most out of his guys. Coach K won’t be even the least bit rattled by the Final Four atmosphere because he has been there so many times, and with a week to prep, Krzyzewski could devise a way to win even if he was playing 3-on-5.

    Not that Tom Izzo is a nobody. Few coaches get more out of their guys, and he is great at making teams play the way he wants to every time out. He doesn’t get rattled, and his team feeds off his belief in them. Izzo’s teams always play tough defense and rebound, and that gives the Spartans a chance against everyone they play.

    Advantage: Duke. With all due respect to Izzo, this is Coach K we’re talking about.

    What will happen?

    Michigan State will look to be aggressive with the ball and go at Okafor early to try to get him in foul trouble. The same with Winslow. Trice and Valentine certainly have the skills to create some issues inside, and it will be up to Duke to play smart and not fall into Izzo’s trap. Duke will try to run a bit more to lean on its superior athleticism and quickness in the backcourt, and the Blue Devils will execute late to pull off a close victory.

    Prediction: Duke 73, Michigan State 68

    #WhosGotNext: Duke or Michigan State? in Campus Insiders Polls on LockerDome

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