After falling in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed and graduating its top three scorers, Michigan State entered this season looking to rebound with help from the nation's third-best recruiting class. But less than a month after the Spartans opened the season ranked 12th in the country, Michigan State now sits unranked without a signature win against a top-25 opponent.
The Spartans will get one last crack at earning a critical victory before conference play when they visit No. 5 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium Tuesday night. The Chronicle breaks down five things to know about Michigan State to get you ready for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup.
'This ain't on them, it's on me'
Through just three weeks of the college basketball season, no team has logged more frequent flyer miles than the Spartans. Michigan State opened its season in Hawaii, dropping a last-second heartbreaker to then-No. 10 Arizona before traveling cross-country to the Champions Classic in New York only to get trounced by then-No. 2 Kentucky just four days.
After a controversial narrow escape at home against Florida Gulf Coast, the Spartans headed to the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, going 2-1 during the holiday tournament and falling to then-No. 20 Baylor 73-58 in the semifinals.
“I actually apologized to my team,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said after the loss. “I’ve always played a tough schedule. You know what, to all of you, you can take it as an excuse, you can take it as whatever you want, I don’t give a damn. I’m telling you what I did. This ain’t on them, it’s on me. The travel has been brutal.”
The Spartans' schedule should lighten a bit after they face the Blue Devils—Michigan State will not play another true road game for nearly a month and is not slated to battle another ranked team until late January.
All eyes on Bridges
The centerpiece of the Spartan recruiting class as a top-10 prospect, Miles Bridges has lived up to the hype so far. The 6-foot-7 swingman leads Michigan State in scoring, rebounding and blocks despite having just seven collegiate games under his belt. Although the Flint, Mich., native weighs in at only 230 pounds, the freshman's versatility could pose major matchup problems for a shorthanded Duke squad—he is hitting 3-pointers at a 40-percent clip and has also shown a knack for high-flying jams.
“He’s a blue-collar superstar, if you ask me," Izzo said at last month's Big Ten media day. "He’s got a lot of work to do, he’s got to get better at some things and needs to make a lot of progress, but he’s been fun to coach and has been a great teammate."
Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski may be forced to play Chase Jeter alongside Amile Jefferson up front if he wants to stick Jefferson on the young Spartan superstar. If the graduate student forward is not guarding Bridges—who averages 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game—come Tuesday, expect Michigan State to exploit a potential mismatch on the offensive end.
Taking care of the ball
If Michigan State is going to find offensive success against a Blue Devil defense that ranks 16th in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defense metric, it will likely start with with junior guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. The 5-foot-10 point guard has a 3.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio yet only averages 3.9 points despite playing more than 26 minutes per game.
Against Kentucky earlier this month, the Spartans hit on just 32.8 percent on their shots from the field and gave the ball up 20 times. Izzo went as far as to say his squad "looked like an AAU team" after leading scorers Bridges and senior guard Eron Harris turned in a combined performance of eight points and nine turnovers. Harris has been better lately, currently knocking down 43.2 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc, but if Michigan State is going to overcome its -5.7 turnover margin Tuesday, Nairn and Harris will likely have to be at their best.
Hoping to dominate down low
With Duke's freshman trio of Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden all still sidelined by leg injuries, the Blue Devils have almost exclusively used four-guard lineups recently. Similarly, the Spartans face frontcourt depth issues. The Michigan State roster features no player taller than 6-foot-9 and senior forward Gavin Schilling, who was expected to play a major role down low, remains out after suffering a knee injury during the Spartans' season tipoff event last month.
Although Bridges leads the team in rebounds, a pair of young big men—freshman Nick Ward and redshirt sophomore Kenny Goins—have split time down low and are averaging a combined 10.5 boards per game. The duo has also tallied 16 blocks and their size will make for an interesting matchup against Duke guards Frank Jackson, Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard, all of whom are unafraid to put their heads down and drive to the hole.
Struggles of the past
Since the start of the ACC/Big Ten challenge in 1999, no team has had more success than Duke—the Blue Devils are 15-2 and have won all seven matchups in Durham. The Spartans, on the other hand, have lost more times away from home than any other team in the series and have just one victory outside East Lansing, Mich.
Izzo and Krzyzewski have also battled 10 times during their careers, with Duke coming out on top in nine of the meetings. Michigan State's lone win came in a 2005 Sweet 16 matchup—unsurprising given Izzo's penchant for rounding his squad into shape come March. An upset at Cameron Indoor Stadium Tuesday could spark a turnaround for a Spartan team that has just two Challenge wins in the last eight years and could use a statement nonconference win.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."