INDIANAPOLIS — In any number of ways, Duke couldn’t have asked for much more from Michigan State.
This was true even during a four-minute span from the opening tip, when the Spartans could do no wrong: Michigan State opened with 14 points in four minutes, taking an eight-point lead behind a perfect 4-for-4 start from behind the three-point arc.
During an ensuing timeout, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski imparted two lessons: one, start talking on defense, and two, don’t worry.
BOX SCORE: Blue Devils 81, Spartans 61
“It’s not the first time we’ve been punched in the mouth,” Duke guard Matt Jones said.
“We knew it was going to be a fight,” added forward Marshall Plumlee. “So when they came out and hit us in the mouth, you’ve just got to stay level-headed, stay calm and try to right the ship. And we were able to do that.”
For Duke, the Spartans’ torrid start led to a rejuvenated and recommitted defensive effort; the Blue Devils would allow just 11 points the rest of the first half, taking a matching 11-point lead into the locker room on the road to a breezy 81-61 win.
For Michigan State, however, finding such long-range success was at once a blessing and a curse — helping to carve out an early advantage, building a degree of offensive momentum while creating a jump-shot-happy approach that played firmly into Duke’s hands.
“I had some great looks in the beginning of the game,” Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine said. “After the first media timeout, they did a good job of making adjustments of taking me out. It forced us to shoot some bad shots. We had some bad plays, led to turnovers. You know, we kind of beat ourselves in the first half.”
This wasn’t the only way in which the Spartans stood as the Blue Devils’ perfect national-semifinal opponent: Michigan State’s lack of frontcourt punch, offensive approach and defensive blueprint — including a decision to not double-team Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor — helped to blaze the team’s trail into the national championship game.
“We liked our chances,” Okafor said. “We knew that if we played the way we’re supposed to play we’d have a great opportunity to win.”
There’s just one thing Michigan State couldn’t provide: a realistic sense of what Duke can expect on Monday night.
Reaching the Final Four is an achievement in itself, just as advancing to the championship game is worthy of commendation. But here’s the question: Though Duke had the Spartans’ number, how does this semifinal pairing — in hindsight, a mismatch in their favor — prepare the Blue Devils for Wisconsin, which upset previously undefeated Kentucky 71-64? (Duke defeated Wisconsin 80-70 in December.)
Michigan State’s toughness — perhaps the program’s defining trait — is often imitated but never duplicated; after an uneven regular season, this mentality drove the Spartans into the Final Four as the seventh seed in the East Region.
But the Badgers will counter the Spartans’ hard-nosed mentality with size, length and talent to burn, particularly in the frontcourt: Wisconsin is led by All-America selection Frank Kaminsky, one of the nation’s best at drawing attention inside and out of the paint, along with a sturdy secondary option in Sam Dekker.
Michigan State, meanwhile, was hamstrung not just by its refusal to double-team Okafor but by its inability to force the star freshman to expend energy on the defensive end. Forwards Branden Dawson, Gavin Schilling, Matt Costello and Marvin Clark Jr. scored 19 points on a combined 8-for-19 shooting, allowing Okafor a relative breather between offensive possessions.
The Spartans were inept from the three-point line after a hot start, and throughout the season were among the nation’s worst in converting free throws; Wisconsin, on the other hand, can tout an inside-out, well-rounded game capable of placing tremendous strain on the Blue Devils’ defense.
At the same time, however, there is one substantially positive development to take from Saturday night’s win, several Duke players said: this same defense, a potential Achilles heel during the regular season that has turned into the Blue Devils’ greatest asset in the hunt for the national title.
Duke allowed 65.6 points a game during the regular season, ranking outside the top 100 in Division I; during the tournament, the Blue Devils have allowed just 55.0 points a game in defeating Robert Morris, San Diego State, Utah, Gonzaga and the Spartans. None of these five opponents have made more than 44% of their attempts, nor converted better than 35% from the three-point line.
It doesn’t matter if the Blue Devils are playing Michigan State or Wisconsin — or anyone else, for that matter — Jones said: Duke’s newfound success on defense is universally translatable. In this sense, Michigan State’s parting gift wasn’t only an easy path through the first national semifinal; the Spartans also gave Duke the confidence needed to handle the Badgers.
“We can match up with anybody,” Jones said. “I feel like if we play hard and we play the way we know how to play, then we should be good vs. anybody. We’ve just have to do it one more time on Monday.”
GALLERY: HIGHLIGHTS FROM DUKE-MICHIGAN STATE