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Totally exposed

AUSTIN, Texas — Michigan State visited Cameron and lost a close battle to the Blue Devils in December. J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing scored 29 points apiece and both had five three pointers.

When the two teams collided in the Sweet 16 Friday, the fifth-seeded Spartans already had a first-hand experience of what exactly Duke does well, and it turned out to be invaluable. Michigan State drew together a simple game plan, which utilized its advantage as the stronger and more athletic squad. The team also tried to limit the effectiveness of the duo that killed them in the early-season match.

The Spartans executed almost flawlessly. Like most underdogs who pull off huge wins, Michigan State made big plays in crunch time and shot accurately from the free throw line. But the Spartans also did an excellent job exploiting two major weaknesses the Blue Devils have had all season long: ball handling and offensive rebounding.

The first and most effective measure Michigan State took to hamper Duke was to pressure the ball incessantly. Athletic Spartan guards forced Ewing and DeMarcus Nelson to zig-zag the ball up the court after made baskets and dead balls. Once the Blue Devils got the ball into their offensive set, Michigan State’s smothering defense prevented decent looks for both Redick and Ewing from long distance and created 22 turnovers.

“They took away our vision, and we didn’t see open players,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It was like rushing the quarterback—with pressure, you can’t see your receiver.”

Duke was also abused on the offensive glass. The Blue Devils had 24 defensive rebounds, while the Spartans collected 16 offensive rebounds. For most of the game, Shelden Williams was all alone under the rim fighting with three or four Spartans for the ball. All too often, Williams would successfully block out his man, only to watch a different Michigan State forward or guard dart in for the board.

Shavlik Randolph, who is supposed to provide Duke with a second viable rebounding option, put together another poor performance, capping off they junior’s sub-par year. In 18 minutes, Randolph had two rebounds, three fouls, two turnovers and no points. When Williams fouled out with three minutes remaining, Krzyzewski elected to go with the tiny lineup of Nelson, Ewing, Redick, Sean Dockery and Reggie Love on defense or Lee Melchionni on offense instead of bringing Randolph into the game. This all happened while the Spartans had 6-foot-11 center Paul Davis dominating the floor.

Michigan State’s effectiveness on the glass and in forcing turnovers allowed them to compensate for their poor shooting in the first half. For the first 20 minutes, the Spartans only hit one perimeter shot, going 0-for-6 from three-point range and shooting a very mediocre 36 percent from the field. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils were able to hit exactly half of their shots, but the two teams still went into halftime tied at 32.

For the game, the Spartans took 14 more shots than the Blue Devils. So when Michigan State finally started to make outside baskets in the second half—48-percent from the field in the second half—Duke fell behind for good.

“Jump shots don’t always fall,” Ewing said. “For us, we’ve been able to rely on defense and tonight we just couldn’t get the stops and the rebounds we needed, and that was a real big key.”

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