While the headlining matchup of the 2019 Big Ten/ACC Challenge will provide the Blue Devils with an opportunity to avenge their heartbreaking Elite Eight loss to the Spartans last March, coming away with a victory certainly will not be easy.
Tuesday’s matchup in East Lansing, Mich., marks Duke’s toughest test to date and will be the first time the Blue Devil freshmen meet face-to-face with a hostile road crowd. Here are five things to watch for when perennial blue bloods Duke and Michigan State take the floor at the Breslin Center.
Time to bounce back
Like the Blue Devils, the Spartans are hoping to put last week in the rearview mirror. Michigan State was shocked by an unranked Virginia Tech squad in the quarterfinal of the Maui Invitational last Monday, its second loss of the month after the Spartans fell to Kentucky in the season opener. To make matters worse, the Hokies suffered a 27-point defeat to Dayton the following evening.
A win against Duke will propel the preseason No. 1 team right back into the conversation for the best team in the country, but a third nonconference loss could be enough to diminish any hopes of a No. 1-seed in March. The Spartans do have a road win against then-No. 12 Seton Hall on their resume, but a win against the Blue Devils could provide a much-needed boost ahead of Big Ten play.
Seasoned vets at the point
The most intriguing position battle will undoubtedly be the matchup between Tre Jones and Cassius Winston. Jones struggled to slow the Preseason Player of the Year last March, as Winston erupted for 20 points and 10 assists. On the flip side, Jones will need to create much more this time around after a quiet 2-for-5 effort from the field.
The Apple Valley, Minn., native has shown an ability to shut down the nation’s best during his time at Duke, and he’ll likely need another dominant performance in order to lead his team to victory. Look for Jones to come out with a chip on his shoulder after the Spartans ended the Blue Devils’ season last year. Establishing the proper pace of play early could be the difference-maker.
Battle of the bigs
Vernon Carey Jr. has officially arrived in Durham, as evidenced by six consecutive double-doubles. However, the Blue Devils’ interior defense has not been particularly strong of late. Stephen F. Austin feasted for 64 points in the paint Tuesday, and weak interior protection could cause serious trouble as the Blue Devils encounter more physical talent.
Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman is a matchup nightmare and a rebounding machine. The 6-foot-8 junior averages 12.3 points and 10.0 rebounds per contest and has led the Spartans in rebounding in each of the team’s seven games this season. While Carey was strong defensively against Udoka Azubuike of Kansas in the season-opener, he did not show the offensive ferocity we’ve grown accustomed to during the past few weeks. Interior dominance on both offense and defense will be a major key for victory Tuesday.
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After playing their first eight games between Cameron and Cameron North (Madison Square Garden), Duke is set for its first true road game. Inexperience in hostile environments is always a cause for concern, and Duke’s young roster will have to learn fast. The Blue Devils responded well to their first test under the bright lights in their 68-66 victory against Kansas in the Champions Classic, but the Breslin Center should be filled with a much more raucous crowd.
Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s leadership council was created to prepare the team for these moments, and Duke will need its veterans to step up while the freshmen adjust to the new environment. While Jones’ poise at the point will be crucial, the Blue Devils could use a boost from senior Javin DeLaurier. DeLaurier has slipped back into his foul-prone ways that plagued him during his first few years in Durham, but his best performance as a Blue Devil came against Michigan State last March when he recorded 10 points and grabbed 11 boards.
Duke’s balanced roster will be put to the test with guard Cassius Stanley expected to miss a few weeks with a hamstring injury suffered Friday. Stanley averaged 12.9 points per contest and drained 47.4 percent of his 3-point attempts during the Blue Devils’ eight games. The Blue Devils could go a few different directions to replace Stanley’s dynamic playmaking ability, opting either for shooting or defense.
Duke could bolster its offense by starting Joey Baker, who erupted for a career-high 16 points Friday and has been lethal from the perimeter. Krzyzewski also has sharpshooter Alex O’Connell at his disposal—however, O’Connell has struggled from the field after earning a few starting nods earlier in the season. On the defensive end, Jordan Goldwire could pester the Spartan guards alongside Jones, or the Blue Devils could turn to Jack White and opt for additional help on the glass with Michigan State’s size—a tough task for a young Duke frontcourt.