Michigan State vs. Duke: 5 Keys to Victory in Final Four


As Michigan State (27-11) magical run through the NCAA Tournament continues, the competition of course stiffens. The Spartans will be taking on the No. 1 seeded Duke Blue Devils (33-4) Saturday evening in Indianapolis with a berth in the National Championship on the line.

Duke and Michigan State matched up in the second game of the season, in the State Farm Champions Classic, with Duke coming out on top 81-71. Michigan State, as well as Duke, has most definitely improved since then in all aspects of the game.

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In that early season game MSU allowed the Blue Devils to shoot 54% from the field, connect on seven three pointers at a 50% rate, and committed 13 turnovers. Improving on each of those statistics will most certainly be keys to winning this match up but let’s take a closer look at what it is going to take for Michigan State to still be playing after the game Saturday night.

1. Defense

Let’s just start off with this right away. As the numbers above show Duke had no problem getting the shots they wanted and making them at a high rate in the first matchup. This will not be an easy task, of course, but at this time of year nothing but your best can be expected if you hope to keep advancing. The Spartans will have their hands full attempting to keep Duke stars Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow in check who scored 17, 17, 19 and 15 respectively in the first match up. This also does not count sharp shooter Matt Jones who had a breakout game in Duke’s regional final.

There are several keys to the Spartans defense in this game. The perimeter defense, ensuring that Duke guards do not get to the lane at will, limiting Okafor as best as they possibly can, and Branden Dawson is going to need to have the best game of his defensive career to enable each of those previous points. Dawson was a key factor in every single stop in the overtime game against Louisville, he was all over the place, a full game effort of this is going to be extremely important.

2. Foul Trouble (Staying Out Of It)

I highly doubt Coach Izzo is going to implement a double team on Okafor. Izzo has always been more concerned about giving up wide open three’s, which Duke is more than capable of knocking down, so he generally does not double team. It will be imperative that Costello and Schilling stay out of foul trouble. By no means are they expected to shut Okafor down, but making him as uncomfortable in the paint as possible, without fouling, will go a long way.

Mar 29, 2015; Syracuse, NY, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard/forward Branden Dawson (22) shoots the ball over Louisville Cardinals guard/forward Wayne Blackshear (25) during the second half in the finals of the east regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Denzel Valentine also needs to stay out of foul trouble. In two tournament games, Virginia and Louisville, Valentine picked up several dumb fouls and found himself on the bench. With Valentine on the floor the Spartans are obviously much better. He knocks down clutch shots, creates for others, and is often tasked with guarding the best player, MSU needs him on the floor for most of this game.

3. A Full 40 Minute Game

Against Oklahoma and Louisville the defense did not show up until the second half. Against Georgia the team as a whole did not show up for the first five minutes. In this game if the Spartans do not play close to the best of their ability for the full 40 minutes it is going to be tough to pull out a victory.

Digging a hole could prove to be too big to climb out of, building a lead and going through a scoring drought or relaxing on defense would prove costly in holding that lead. Duke is to well coached and has too much talent for the Spartans to not bring their “A” game for 40 minutes.

4. Foul Shots and Limiting Turnovers

Yes I cheated on this one and pulled a two for one. In my defense, it was difficult to decide which is more important because they are both going to be crucial in this match up. Against Louisville the Spartans shot 15-20 from the foul line (AWESOME!) but they also had 12 turnovers (NOT AWESOME!), which allowed Louisville to score easy buckets and stay in the game.

Possessions are going to be precious for MSU, as Duke is capable of going on a scoring spirt at any given time. Limiting easy transition baskets and taking every opportunity to score themselves is going to be very important for Michigan State.

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  • And of course we always come to our old friend the foul line. Last game the Spartans going 15-20, with Gavin Schilling going 2-2, was a fantastic sight to see. But, as we saw with Marvin Clarke Jr going 0-2 at the end of the game every single point counts. The Spartans will need to treat the free opportunities at the line with the up most importance and take advantage, the Blue Devils certainly will.

    5. The Stars Must Come to Play

    This was a key in my last “5 Keys” article before the Louisville game but it rings true yet again. If Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, and Branden Dawson are not at their best the Spartans will not move on. Travis Trice needs to continue his dominate run in this tournament and put up points, Valentine needs to play tough defense as well as continue to hit big shots and facilitate the offense, and Branden Dawson needs to be everywhere he possibly can be on defense and rebounding on both ends of the floor.

    Duke has high-end talent that will all play in the NBA, but Michigan State’s three amigos are playing at the highest level they ever have. The role players of course will need to play their part but the Spartans need this trio to carry them to another win to keep this dream run alive.