For a team sitting at 7-1, it's hard to believe the Blue Devils are in a position of much scrutiny.
Yet, coming off a week that featured a devastating home loss to Stephen F. Austin and an uncomfortably tight win against a mediocre Winthrop team, Duke desperately needs a statement win to assuage doubts about its national title relevance.
Luckily for the Blue Devils, such an opportunity is just around the corner.
No. 10 Duke will travel to East Lansing, Mich., to take on No. 11 Michigan State Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. in the Breslin Center as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The first true road game of the Blue Devils' schedule, this contest poses arguably Duke's biggest challenge yet, as the Blue Devils will have to match up against a lengthy, experienced team that was widely considered the preseason title favorite.
"It's definitely going to be a battle," Duke sophomore point guard Tre Jones said. "It's a great basketball program with one of the greatest coaches ever in Tom Izzo. They're going to be really tough so I'm definitely looking forward to that game."
As much as the Blue Devils need a top-15 win to expel the doubts that have started to float about the team, the Spartans won't give Duke any easy opportunity.
The biggest challenge the Blue Devils must overcome against Michigan State (5-2) is finding a way to slow down the Spartans' high-powered offense.
Led by star senior point guard Cassius Winston, Michigan State employs a fluid offensive attack that gets everyone involved, ranking third in the nation in assists per game with 18.4. Down low, the Blue Devils will have to contend with Xavier Tillman and Thomas Kithier, a pair of imposing and athletic bigs who can clean up on the offensive glass and take advantage of size mismatches to score easy buckets. With a team that boasts four large bodies in the rotation, expect the Spartans to constantly pressure the likes of Vernon Carey Jr. and Jack White and try to exploit Duke's relatively weak interior defense.
The meat of the firepower Michigan State will employ against Duke, however, will most likely come from its highly talented and experienced backcourt.
In last year's Elite Eight matchup that ultimately ended the Blue Devils' 2018-19 season, Winston cooked a then-freshman Jones for 20 points, using his crafty playmaking and physical offensive style to will his way to the basket. Winston is still the driver of Michigan State's offense, but this year is joined by breakout freshman Rocket Watts. Yet another quick and athletic guard with natural playmaking instincts, Duke should expect constant pressure up and down the floor every time the Spartans get the ball in their hands.
"I think about [last year's game] a little bit, but it's a whole new year," Jones said. "They have a lot of new guys, we have a lot of new guys. Obviously, you think about last year a little bit but it's a whole new year and a different type of game... Different teams, different vibe, but the same goal to win."
However, while Michigan State has the weapons to potentially run through any team in the nation, the Spartans have some glaring weaknesses that the Blue Devils must exploit if they want to leave East Lansing with a win.
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Although at its peak Michigan State's offense can be a free-flowing machine that devours any defensive scheme thrown at it, it also has a track record for being one of the most inconsistent in the nation. The Spartans average 11.6 turnovers per game, a marked improvement from last season, but still a sore point that Duke will have to take full advantage of. With two of the best on-ball defenders in the nation in Jones and Jordan Goldwire, the Blue Devils will have the opportunity to wreak havoc in passing lanes, nabbing steals and grabbing key scoring opportunities in transition.
Even with the many issues that have cropped up over the past week, the Blue Devils know grabbing a win in East Lansing will be one of the greatest challenges the team has faced all season. However, if Duke can pull it off, the Blue Devils may finally be able to take steps to leave the black cloud of Thanksgiving break behind them.
"I expect a rowdy crowd and an intense crowd," Carey said. "It's going to be a good, intense matchup."