INDIANAPOLIS—In Duke basketball time, November seems forever ago. It seems like forever ago that the Blue Devils were 14-0, riding a stretch of forceful but rarely flashy domination through one of the toughest early-season schedules ever played in Division I. It seems like it’s been ages since Duke barreled its way through three top teams at the Battle 4 Atlantis, exerting its will throughout and never ceding the driver’s seat to any of its opponents.
So much has happened since then.
There was Ryan Kelly’s injury, and the resultant disruption to team chemistry and that all-important momentum. There were Rasheed Sulaimon’s freshman growing pains that led to his removal from the lineup at times. There were the offensive struggles that ensued when Quinn Cook’s assist numbers dropped as conference play began.
Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, though, the November team once again showed its face, as the second-seeded Blue Devils gutted out a 71-61 victory against a third-seeded Michigan State team that presented arguably the greatest matchup dilemma of any team remaining in the postseason.
“We just got back to Duke defense, and that was a grind-it-out game for 40 minutes,” Sulaimon said. “Everybody was talking about how tough they were, and we just felt as if we were a tough team too. We had something to prove. We played with a chip on our shoulder.”
On the whole, the Spartans may not have been the best team left in March when they took the court against Duke, but their combination of size, rebounding ability and defensive intensity could have made them a nightmare for a Blue Devil squad that relies heavily on Mason Plumlee in the post and that has at times struggled mightily on the glass.
Only one other team in the Sweet 16 possessed three players averaging six or more rebounds per game. No team attacked the interior with as much frequency and variety as the Spartans while maintaining enough of a perimeter threat to keep defenses honest.
In particular, the Michigan State frontcourt combination of 6-foot-10 Adreian Payne, 6-foot-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix and 6-foot-6 wing Branden Dawson—all of whom are good defenders in addition to their excellent rebounding numbers—could have caused major problems for a Duke forward corps that can name only Plumlee as a true physical force.
And on top of that, Duke could have been handicapped by several other difficult factors. Cook was held scoreless for just the second time all season, and he had 14 assists the other time that happened. He had just two against the Spartans while turning it over three times.
Plumlee picked up his fourth foul with more than eight minutes left in the game. A flurry of whistles—with 11 fouls whistled in a span lasting just longer than four minutes—midway through the second half robbed the game of any semblance of rhythm.
But in a fashion very reminiscent of early-season Duke, the Blue Devils methodically controlled the game nonetheless, quelling a Michigan State surge late in the first half by opening the second half with Seth Curry 3-pointers on three of its first four possessions and then completely disrupting Michigan State’s offensive sync with a variety of switches and help defense.
“When somebody is making shots like that, and we had the momentum, it is deflating,” Payne said.
The Spartans started the second half just 3-for-16 from the field and Duke converted seven Michigan State turnovers—including three offensive fouls in a series of four possessions—into eight points at a crucial phase in the game.
“They did a lot. They doubled and they took away my right hand,” Payne said. “I wasn’t attacking the basket, being aggressive.”
And when Payne and his teammates were not able to attack, struggling against Duke’s careful double-teams and aggressive hedging on ball screens, the Blue Devils took advantage, remaining patient on offense and earning 26 trips to the free-throw line.
Perhaps most importantly, Duke limited Michigan State on the offensive glass, where they are accustomed to racking up second-chance points. Entering play Sunday, the Spartans had rebounded 36.5 percent of their missed shots. Against the Blue Devils, they pulled down only 25 percent and managed just five second-chance points.
“The first thing was to limit them to one shot,” Plumlee said. “It worked well for us tonight because we did it by committee. We got balls in scrums. We had multiple guards down there on the defensive boards.”
Although Payne and Nix combined for 19 rebounds in the game, including six offensive rebounds, they rarely pulled down boards in a position to put them back for easy dunks or lay-ins. The forward tandem combined to shoot just 6-for-20 from the floor in the game, with Payne even resorting to taking 3-pointers at times early in the contest.
What looked on paper like one of the toughest interior challenges Duke would face turned into a clinic on post defense, with Plumlee playing physical to keep the big-bodied Nix out of the deep post, and Kelly coming through with weak-side help that resulted in four blocked shots.
Every time Michigan State tried to throw a punch at Duke, the Blue Devils appeared prepared to either dodge or absorb it, must like the relentlessness that had carried them through the season’s early going.
It’s much too early to say that the Duke team from November has returned for good, but after Saturday’s top-notch performance, Thanksgiving doesn’t seem like quite so long ago.