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Duke men's basketball set to host No. 8 Michigan State in Champions Classic

DJ Steward notched 24 points against Coppin State, the fourth-highest by a Blue Devil in their freshman debut behind only RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Marvin Bagley III.
DJ Steward notched 24 points against Coppin State, the fourth-highest by a Blue Devil in their freshman debut behind only RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Marvin Bagley III.

For the fifth straight season and 10th time in 11 years, Duke and Michigan State face off.

After a slightly underwhelming 81-71 victory against Coppin State Saturday, the sixth-ranked Blue Devils now shift gears to their first primetime game of the season against the eighth-ranked Spartans Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

The story of this Champions Classic matchup is youth vs. experience—three freshmen played at least 29 minutes in Duke's opening win while zero first-years average more than 4.5 minutes a night thus far for Michigan State.

“We’re young, but we can’t play young,” Duke freshman guard DJ Steward said. “We have to be ready for anything, ready for the physicality.”

While Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman have moved on to the pros, upperclassmen such as Joey Hauser, Foster Loyer and Joshua Langford led Michigan State (2-0) to two impressive victories last week against Eastern Michigan and Notre Dame.

Similar to most Spartan teams under head coach Tom Izzo, Michigan State has a strong combination of interior and perimeter scoring as well as unselfish distributors. Seven Spartans currently average multiple assists per game, which shows how crisp Michigan State’s ball movement can be when its high-low motion offense is in sync. 

This slower style of play directly contrasts the approach Duke (1-0) showed Saturday. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his assistant coaches made it clear throughout the preseason that the Blue Devils would prefer to speed up the tempo, while the Spartans like to slow the game down and execute their offensive sets. 

“We have to play faster than them and just be ready for anything and just play through it," Steward said. 

Duke may look to athletic freshman wing Jalen Johnson—who pulled down 19 rebounds against the Eagles—as someone who can play inside, allowing the Blue Devils to implement that desired fast-paced style. However, that is something that may have to emerge within the natural flow of the game, as the Spartans will likely to look to impose their will inside early on with Hauser and Marcus Bingham Jr.

“You're just not going to question it. If I’m at the five, I'm at the five,” Johnson, who stands at 6-foot-9, said Saturday regarding Krzyzewski potentially playing him at center for certain stretches. “But as far as every other game, I'm not sure. That's Coach's decision.”

Despite its overall promising start to the year, Michigan State has looked a bit sluggish in some facets of the game up to this point. For one, the Spartans have turned it over an average of 15 times through their first two contests. This gives the Blue Devils’ pesky perimeter defenders, in particular senior Jordan Goldwire and sophomore Wendell Moore Jr., an opportunity to get fast breaks started with deflections and steals. 

Duke’s on-ball defense will need to shine in order to stymie Michigan State’s ability to connect from downtown as well. The Spartans have shot 38 percent from distance so far, and their 50 attempts from beyond the arc in two games indicate a willingness to space the floor and find open shooters. In particular, Loyer and Rocket Watts—the latter seen by many to be Winston's eventual successor as the program's next great point guard—have been extremely impressive from deep.

“We just have to be in the right spots [and] contest,” Steward said. “I feel like we worked on that in practice so we’re going to be a lot better on contesting and not giving up open shots.”

Despite the high stakes in this early-season showdown, there will once again be no fans to witness the action. Normally, a top-10 matchup like this one would feature a raucous Cameron crowd, but COVID-19 has obviously forced some adjustments. 

“I haven’t been able to experience the Cameron Crazies," Steward said, "but I know that it’s very different."

Even without any spectators in attendance, anytime Krzyzewski and Izzo are on opposite ends of the sideline, the lights will be bright. Memorable matchups, such as Kyrie Irving’s breakout game in the 2010 ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the 2015 Final Four and the 2019 East Regional Final, have defined this series in recent years. 

And in the 2020 version of Duke-Michigan State, the stars are aligned for another classic. 


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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