With its first-round win in the books and a Sweet Sixteen berth now on the line, Duke is set to take on a familiar opponent Sunday in Michigan State. Ahead of the all-important matchup, the Blue Zone presents a key player from both teams who could prove to be the difference:
Duke: Wendell Moore Jr.
The stakes are high. With a Sweet Sixteen berth on the line, Duke needs a solid, all-around performance to down head coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans, and that starts with junior captain Wendell Moore Jr. Moore has been a consistent contributor all season, averaging a solid 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. That steady hand has already continued in the tournament. In Duke’s rout of Cal State Fullerton, Moore tallied 13 points, six rebounds, six assists and a steal. He also made 3-of-4 attempts from beyond the arc, propelling the Blue Devils to the second round.
What sets Moore apart from many of his teammates is simple: experience. While it might also be his first NCAA tournament—COVID-19 shut the world down in March of his freshman season and halted Duke's season during the 2021 ACC tournament—the junior leads a team dominated by star freshmen. As the stage grows, so do nerves, and if Moore can stay calm and collected while continuing to play solid basketball, he will set the tone for the rest of his young team to do the same. He doesn’t need a record-book performance, though the Blue Devils would certainly appreciate one. Moore’s success will more appropriately be measured in the team’s performance as a whole: defensive communication, smart shot choices and ball security are just a few ways he will likely be looking to lead by example.
Michigan State: Gabe Brown
Senior forward Gabe Brown has been a constant on a team that tends to share the wealth. Brown is the only Spartan that averages double-digit points per game, a mark he has met in seven of Michigan State’s last eight games. He has gone over 20 points three times this season in performances usually driven by hot games from long distance, like his 6-of-7 3-point shooting day in a loss to Rutgers back in February.
Duke has been burned by the three in recent outings. In the Blue Devils' regular-season finale against North Carolina, Tar Heel forward Brady Manek sunk 5-of-10 attempts from deep en route to a 20-point performance. Virginia Tech made more than 45% of its treys in the ACC tournament championship game, led by Hunter Cattoor’s seven makes on nine attempts. If one player gets hot, the Blue Devils have not yet proven that they can stop him. Brown has the opportunity to do just that.
Even if he doesn’t go off on an uncharacteristically effective day from beyond the arc as Cattoor did, Brown’s consistent, steady hand and experience in the tournament give him an edge. After all, he played in the Elite Eight matchup between these two teams in 2019. The only Blue Devil remaining from that roster is Joey Baker. The Spartans spoiled Duke’s Final Four dreams then, and Brown and his team will surely be looking to repeat history come Sunday.
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