The Michigan State Spartans are back in the Final Four, and word around the country is that this is the best coaching job head coach Tom Izzo has ever had in his time at MSU. The Spartans were under-seeded going into the big dance, given a 7-seed in a region that had arguably four or five national championship contending programs. With the help of some stingy defense, senior leadership, and clutch timely free-throw shooting, they are back on the biggest stage in college basketball, and will now face a familiar foe.
Tom Izzo will be facing the Duke Blue Devils and Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzewski for the tenth time in his career as the Spartans head coach. The coaching rivalry has been one-sided, as Coach K has won eight of the first nine bouts between the two. However, Izzo has only faced Krzyzewski three times in the tournament, and is 1-2. The lone victory came in the 2005 Sweet Sixteen round, en route to the Final Four.
The Spartans could not have gotten any better production from their senior guard Travis Trice. Trice is averaging nearly 20.0 points a game in four tournament games, and is also averaging 4.0 assists. The biggest part of his play throughout the tournament has been his clutch free-throw shooting, converting on 16 of his 18 attempts.
Hot and cold guard/forward Denzel Valentine is coming off a game where he filled up the entire stat sheet for Michigan State. He had 15 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals. If the Spartans want to have any success, Valentine will need to be more crisp and selective from the field. He is 5 for his last 16 attempts from beyond the arc.
Senior forward Branden Dawson will also need to step up in a big way on Saturday against the Blue Devils. He has recorded double-digit rebounds in the last two tournament games, but only scored 15 points combined in the two games. Dawson’s biggest rebound of the game in the Elite Eight round was a putback off of a missed 3-point attempt from Bryn Forbes, putting the Spartans up by four with 0:36 seconds left to ice the game.
The Spartans will have their hands full with the Blue Devils on Saturday. Duke is where they are right now with the help from the play of three outstanding freshman.
NBA prospect and center Jahlil Okafor has been a force all season. The 6’11”, 270 lbs. freshman is averaging 17.5 points a game this season, along with 8.7 rebounds. However, he has just 15 points total in the last two tournament games for Duke. Expect him to bounce back and be a big problem for Michigan State.
Guard Tyus Jones has been an adequate back court partner for senior leader Quinn Cook. He is shooting 88.8% from the free-throw line on the season, and over 37% from the 3-point line. He is averaging 11.5 points, 4.5 assists, and 3 rebounds in the tournament.
Forward Justise Winslow is arguably Duke’s best all-around player. He is shooting over 41% from 3-point land on the season, averaging over 12 points a game. Winslow has also recorded a double-double in two of his last three tournament games.
If the Spartans are going to win this basketball game, they will need contributions from their big three of Dawson, Trice, and Valentine. The big man platoon of Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello will also be important in dealing with Okafor down in the paint. The Spartans essentially have a bigger margin of error in the foul department. If Michigan State can contain Okafor and/or get him into early foul trouble, they can put themselves into good position to steal a victory in the national semifinals.