Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo already had plenty of fuel for his fire against second-seeded Duke. He is just 1-6 all-time against the Blue Devils, last season Mike Krzyzewski notched his record-setting 903rd victory against Izzo, and in December the Duke coaching staff edged Izzo in an uber-competitive recruitment to win over prized recruit Jabari Parker.
Thursday another source of motivation was revealed for Friday’s 9:45 p.m. Sweet 16 tilt in Indianapolis: Izzo’s 13-year old son, Steven, picked the Blue Devils to beat the Spartans in his bracket.
“I said, ‘Steven, what are you doing?’” Izzo said on ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the morning radio show. “He says, ‘Well Dad, I’m just not sure on this game.’ I said, ‘You know what, son? You’ve got to pick with your head, not your heart.’ The damn kid picked Duke!”
Krzyzewski reflected on the younger Izzo’s predicition in Thursday’s press conference in Indianapolis.
“I hope he’s right, first of all,” Krzyzewski said. “And by the way, his son will be sitting on our bench and has a scholarship to Duke. He didn’t know that on Facebook and that on Twitter. I’ve been communicating with him and have arranged that deal. So he sold him out. But he sold him out for a good price. So it’s a good thing.”
Forty minutes of basketball away from the program’s 19th Elite Eight appearance, Duke will face a Michigan State team that excels in an area where the Blue Devils have been most susceptible all season: rebounding—where they rank 213th in the country.
Junior Adreian Payne and senior Derrick Nix headline a physical Spartan frontcourt that has dominated its first two opponents in the NCAA Tournament—Valaparaiso and Memphis—on the glass by a combined 85-45 margin, which resulted in two lopsided wins last weekend.
“The consistent factor for them is that they are an outstanding rebounding team,” Krzyzewski said. “Pretty much when they go on the court they are the best offensive rebounding team on the court. And we have not done that.”
The Michigan State-Duke matchup offers everything a college basketball junkie craves: two Hall of Fame coaches, two traditional powerhouse programs and two teams with vastly different styles. In stark contrast to the Spartans’ physical and defensive-minded brand of basketball—a staple of the Big Ten conference for the past several years—the Blue Devils thrive on spacing, sharpshooting from 3-point range and getting All-ACC forward Mason Plumlee touches on the block in isolation. The Blue Devils rank fifth nationally in 3-point shooting at 40.3 percent, led by seniors Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly and sophomore Quinn Cook, all of whom shoot more than 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Given Duke’s deficiencies on the boards and thin frontcourt, Plumlee—who fouled out in the team’s Round of 32 win over Creighton—knows how important the battle in the paint will be.
“You just have to rebound,” Plumlee said. “They’re really good at getting it off the glass. With Nix, I think you have to stay on your feet, you can’t go for his shot fakes inside.”
While Payne and Nix do most of the dirty work, guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris—the Big Ten Freshman of the Year—lead the squad in scoring with 13.3 and 13.1 points, respectively, per contest. Offense is a weak point, though, for the Spartans, who average 68.2 points per game—seventh best in the Big Ten. Conversely, scoring is one of the greatest assets of Duke, the sixth best scoring team in the country with 78.3 points per contest.
Duke, however, has been below that mark in its first two tournament wins against Albany and Creighton, largely due to Kelly’s scoring slump. The senior has not scored more than eight points since his second game back from injury, going 0-for-10 from 3-point range in that span.
“As far as my shot goes, I’m not worried about that,” Kelly said. “Obviously, when I just came back the ball certainly went in the basket. And that happens sometimes, and sometimes the ball doesn’t go in the basket. But I’m confident in my shot, and I always believe I’m going to make the next one.”
Another cold shooting night from Kelly probably won’t cut it against the Spartans—a team that like Duke does not beat itself. For the sake of Steven Izzo’s bracket—and returning to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2010—the Blue Devils will likely need one of their most well-rounded outings of the season to defeat Izzo’s club.
“They’re going to show up. We’re going to show up,” Krzyzewski said. “I really love that. This is a big-time game. It’s a big-time game, and we’re excited to be a part of that. We want to be in big-time games.”