The “evil empire” final isn’t going to happen, but Duke do kick off the Final Four with an impressive 81-61 win over Michigan State, showing the full range of offensive and defensive abilities players like Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow have to offer.
Okafor has been criticized by those simply looking at offensive numbers for not delivering the goods, but he does a lot more than just score. Against the Spartans, he scored 18 points and had an excellent defensive game with 2 steals and 2 blocks. Winslow scored 19 points to go with his nine rebounds while Quinn Cook provided the veteran’s touch from the backcourt with 17 points.
Denzel Valentine scored 22 points to lead Michigan State and he got help from Travis Trice with 16 points, but that was about it. Branden Dawson had 12 points but looked like someone who needs a bit (more than a bit actually) of help under the basket, turning the ball over five times and feeling more than once like it was him against two or three players, not getting the help he needed from a long but not very effective bench.
Michigan State didn’t crash the boards like they usually do. They missed easy shots in the first half which allowed Duke to run. Those easy shots turned into bad shots they also missed, and the road towards a heavy defeat was paved, struggling on both ends of the floor, turning the ball over 14 times and allowing Duke to shoot an impressive 52% from the field, getting too many easy and close looks from just near the rim.
Tom Izzo probably explained it better than anyone. His team stopped making shots. And stopped taking good shots. And in the kick and drive basketball that is thriving nowadays in college basketball, his team had no answer to the surging Duke, not on defense and not when they were trying to get back with the same sort of slow basketball that led to shots after 30 seconds of moving the ball around.
Izzo also mentioned the officials and the free throw disparity after the game. Duke shot 37 times from the line (making 27) while Michigan State had just 16 trips to the free throw line. That’s basically the entire difference on the scoreboard. Yes, Duke did get some “soft” calls that shouldn’t have been made, but they did constantly attack the rim, while we rarely saw Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine make a go for it in the paint. Izzo also said he’ll learn from this, and might start recruiting differently.
There was also the Duke defense that is back after a few seasons of Mike Krzyzewski struggling to make it work. Having a big man like Jahlil Okafor and a fellow freshman like Justise Winslow who plays a lot bigger than he actually is doesn’t hurt as well. The two dominated on both ends of the floor, simply letting the Spartans dig a deeper and deeper hole for themselves.
Duke are back in the championship game for the first time since 2010, but this isn’t a case of a nobody like Butler coming out of nowhere to try and steal the show. It’s a Wisconsin team that seems to have the usual brand of suffocating Big Ten defense with an offense that can score from anywhere on the floor, and had no problem dealing with another group of superb athletes and supposedly superior players.