WASHINGTON—After two one-possession wins, Duke has to get through 40 minutes against its toughest opponent of the tournament to date to make it to college basketball's biggest stage.
The top-seeded Blue Devils will tip off in the Elite Eight against No. 2 seed Michigan State at 5:05 Sunday at Capital One Arena with the last spot in next weekend's Final Four on the line. The Spartans are a similar team to the Virginia Tech squad Duke squeaked past 75-73 Friday night, with experienced, physical forwards and a couple of knockdown shooters on the perimeter.
It will be the sixth time the Blue Devils meet Michigan State in the NCAA tournament in the last 25 years.
"It’s just crazy—madness," freshman forward R.J. Barrett said. "They always meet at these later times in the tournament, so just to be a part of that is great."
If the Blue Devils (32-5) advance to the Final Four, they would be a glaring anomaly compared to recent teams that have played in the final weekend of the season in terms of 3-point shooting. The worst long-distance shooting Final Four team of the 21st century is Louisville in 2012, when the Cardinals shot 31.8 percent from long distance. Duke only converts on 30.7 percent of its attempts from long distance, 329th in the nation.
The Blue Devils needed an unlikely sharpshooter to help save their season Friday, as point guard Tre Jones shot 5-of-7 beyond the arc. He had never made more than two triples in a single game beforehand and is still shooting a paltry 26.5 percent from long distance this season, but the rest of the team combined to sink just one of its 13 attempts.
In Duke's second-round escape against Central Florida, when the Knights ignored Jones on the perimeter and watched him struggle to a 1-for-8 finish, the rest of the Blue Devils stepped up and went 9-of-17 in what actually turned out to be one of Duke's better shooting games of the season. It has all come together once, on an electric 13-of-21 night at Virginia, but the Blue Devils have had more than their share of ice-cold nights in both wins and losses.
One of Duke's most dangerous 3-point threats, Cam Reddish, didn't play against the Hokies due to a knee injury and is also a game-time decision for Sunday night.
"Whether it’s one or more, people always step up," Barrett said. "We’re going to be able to hit something. We work on it so much."
Of course, the Blue Devils are also an anomaly in positives—namely, having freshman phenom Zion Williamson on the team. When asked about the gameplan to defend Williamson, the Spartans' Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo quipped that "maybe we could cover him" if his team could borrow a player from the NFL's Chicago Bears.
Williamson has scored 80 points in Duke's first three NCAA tournament games and is leaving his imprint on March Madness before the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft will almost certainly be waiting for him in June.
"He is such a genuine young man and well advanced maturity-wise. He's extremely intelligent book-wise and people-wise, and he's humble. He's really got everything. This is not a phony guy," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's a lot more than a dunker. He's a very, very special human being and player."
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Unlike the Blue Devils, Michigan State (31-6) has a top-25 3-point shooting squad, led by veteran guards Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid, who both attempt more than four triples per game and make more than 40 percent of them. Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year, is a scoring threat from anywhere on the floor and can also make plays to get the Spartans' skilled forwards involved, averaging 7.5 assists per game.
Duke left Virginia Tech open several times in the first half Friday, giving up seven triples as it struggled to a four-point halftime deficit, but locked the Hokies down after the break and only allowed them to attempt eight 3-pointers, making two. The Blue Devils will need that energy and effort on the perimeter to continue for the 40 biggest minutes of the season.
"We were a little sloppy in letting them get too many threes, but they were hitting some tough shots, too. The second half, we just kind of tried to stay out more with the shooters," Barrett said of Friday's game. "This is March Madness, so everybody is going to lay it out there on the line and we’re going to try to find a way."