A year ago, Duke came to the Champions Classic with a group of highly-touted freshmen as the top-ranked team in the nation.

But the majority of the young Blue Devils were on the bench nursing their early-season injuries that night as Kansas’ Frank Mason III hit a game-winning jumper with 1.8 seconds remaining. 

This time around, No. 1 Duke will rely on its freshman in a big way when it travels to Chicago to take on No. 2 Michigan State Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the United Center. The Blue Devils have gotten off to a quick start to the season with beatdowns of Elon and Utah Valley last weekend, but will face a stiff test against a more experienced Spartan team. 

“It’ll be the biggest game that all of those freshmen have played in thus far,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s not the McDonald’s game, even some of our guys have played for the U.S., but it won’t be in that type of setting and against that level of team when they were younger.” 

Duke’s freshmen have made the adjustment to the college game look easy through two games. Forward Marvin Bagley III took advantage of his size in the team’s tuneups and averaged 24.5 points per game on 65.7 percent shooting from the floor in the two Blue Devil wins. In the backcourt, guard Trevon Duval has been steady running the show, with 20 assists to just one turnover. Gary Trent Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. also flashed their ability to make major contributions with Duke’s starting unit.

Although much of the focus was on the team’s big men before the season began, the Blue Devils have placed an emphasis on pushing the ball following misses. All four of Duke’s starting freshman have looked comfortable in the open floor and have a combination of skills that make the Blue Devils lethal in transition. 

“When we get the ball with two hands, we can really change ends well,” Krzyzewski said. “It reminds me of my teams in the early 1990s, how quickly they change ends, and then they like to pass and more than one guy can bring it up. With Grayson and Gary, you have the threat of the three, and then these big guys can really run.” 

But Duke (2-0) will have its hands full Tuesday against a team that returns the majority of its rotation players from last season. 

With the duo of freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. and sophomore Nick Ward, Michigan State (1-0) has the physicality to compete with the Blue Devil bigs down low. The Spartans also will rely on the versatility of forward Miles Bridges—who had 20 points and 10 rebounds in the team’s season-opening win against North Florida—to initiate their offense and crash the glass on misses. 

“We know they’re a tough team,” said senior Grayson Allen, who will be facing Michigan State for the fourth time in his career. “We obviously haven’t seen much of them, but we know they’re going to be great and it’s going to be a very good environment up there, something we have to be ready for.” 

The Blue Devils flummoxed Bridges a year ago and held the sophomore to just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting. Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo criticized his star’s play following the game, but the forward made strides during the season and enters this year as one of the favorites for national player of the year after turning down a jump to the NBA. 

Duke will likely throw a number of different defenders at the burly forward with Trent and potentially either Bagley or Carter defending Bridges at times. With a thin bench, the Blue Devil starters will have to be wary to avoid foul trouble that could expose their inexperienced second unit. 

Although it is early in the season, the Spartans had some trouble taking care of the ball in their first game of the year with 21 turnovers. Duke held its opponents to worse than 40 percent shooting in both games this weekend, and if the Blue Devils can sustain their defensive intensity, they could cause problems for a Michigan State team that does not have a knockdown perimeter shooter or proven floor general. Despite nearly putting up triple digits on the scoreboard Friday, the Spartans finished only 3-of-12 from beyond the arc. 

In addition to bringing the two highest-ranked teams in the nation together, Tuesday’s contest will also pit two of the game’s best coaches against each other. Historically, Krzyzewski has gotten the better of Izzo with a 10-1 head-to-head record against him, and the Blue Devils have beat Michigan State in both of their matchups in the Champions Classic. But Duke will be looking to steady the ship after losing three of its last four games at the season-opening event. 

“I’ve watched a little bit of them. We haven’t studied them yet, but they’re old and new,” Krzyzewski said. “They had good old, really good old, and good new. And the guy coaching them, he’s older, not as old as me, but he’s pretty good. It’ll be a hell of a night.”

Hank Tucker and Mitchell Gladstone contributed reporting.