5 things to know before No. 9 Duke men's basketball tips off against No. 18 Michigan State in Champions Classic

Jared McCain flicks the ball to a teammate during Duke's loss to Arizona.
Jared McCain flicks the ball to a teammate during Duke's loss to Arizona.

Following a heartbreaking 78-73 loss Friday to then-No. 12 Arizona at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the ninth-ranked Blue Devils travel Tuesday to Chicago where they will face No. 18 Michigan State in the annual Champions Classic contested between historic basketball blue bloods. Both teams enter the matchup with an early season loss — Michigan State’s came to James Madison in its season opener. The Blue Devils should expect a fierce veteran squad as they hope to earn their first ranked win of the season.  

Ahead of the matchup, here are five things to watch for:

Crashing the boards

One of Duke’s biggest shortcomings against the Wildcats came in rebounding. The Blue Devils were dominated on the glass as they were outrebounded by a margin of 12, largely due to Arizona’s 15 offensive boards compared to Duke’s eight. Sophomore center Kyle Fillipowski led the team with eight total rebounds, but no other player grabbed more than five. 

The Blue Devils ares in a position to face a similar disparity in rebounding ability against Michigan State. The Spartans are currently averaging 42.5 rebounds per game, nine more than Duke. This gap will need to be closed come Tuesday via a bump from the backcourt. Running a three-guard lineup, head coach Jon Scheyer emphasized that “It’s all about effort, it’s all about mindset” in regard to the squad’s rebounding performance. Consistently having all five players on the court boxing out and showing effort on the glass will be essential for this Duke roster moving forward. 

Amidst the struggles, freshman forward Sean Stewart picked up a notable two rebounds — one offensive — in his short four minutes on the hardwood against the Wildcats. Scheyer acknowledged that “[Stewart] gave us a huge burst when he was in” and “he’s gotta be ready to go Tuesday.” Increasing contribution from the Windermere, Fla., native could be the key to solving the Blue Devils’ weakness on the boards. 

Protecting the rim

Many Blue Devil faithful entered the season concerned about Duke’s frontcourt defense. In particular, they have grown used to a dominant rim-protecting center on the roster — Mark Williams and Dereck Lively II filled this role at a level consistent with their eventual top-15 selections in the NBA Draft. The Blue Devils then failed to acquire a rim-protecting big man in the transfer portal, including target center Ernest Udeh Jr. 

This hole in the rotation was exposed Friday as the Wildcats got 42 points to drop from within the paint, their physicality and size establishing an edge on Duke in the interior. 

While Michigan State’s interior scoring is much more guard-driven, the threat remains present. The Spartans were able to cut through Southern Indiana in their most recent game, earning nine layups and five dunks across the contest. Plugging the paint and forcing Michigan State into lower-percentage shots will be the key for the Blue Devils’ defense. 

Shooting beyond the arc

Live by the three, die by the three. The deep ball will likely be the story for both sides of Tuesday's contest as guard-dominant teams clash. Both have fielded three-guard starting lineups in their early showings, setting the stage for something of a shootout in Chicago. 

Neither team has shown any hesitation in volume behind the arc — Duke currently has 40 such attempts on the season while Michigan State has taken 31. The point of difference will lie in how many of these shots manage to fall.

The Blue Devils have demonstrated relative inconsistency from three thus far. Fillipowski, senior Jeremy Roach, and freshman Jared McCain headline in efficiency from deep — all three are shooting over 40% thus far. However, struggles remain on attempts from sophomore Mark Mitchell, currently 0-for-4, and Tyrese Proctor, who is 3-of-10 and hasn’t managed to reignite his hot hand since the exhibition against UNC Pembroke

While the problem for Duke is inconsistency, the issue for head coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans has been more extreme. Of the 31 attempts from deep on the season, Michigan State has made just two. There is not any fundamental reason why the Spartans cannot drain the three — their roster is talent-packed with proven shooters on all levels. For Tuesday’s matchup, this means a broad range for how Michigan State will handle its attempts behind the arc. The squad could potentially limit the three-ball, lacking confidence after early season struggles. It would be able to compensate by leaning into Duke’s weaknesses on the interior, opting to consistently drive for higher-percentage shots. Alternatively, continued faith in deep shooting could eventually lead the Spartans toward a hot streak where they break through whatever barrier has stopped the three from falling. 

Swinging the rock

Scheyer’s greatest point of emphasis after the loss to Arizona was that the team “didn’t play Duke basketball.” The Blue Devils failed to play together, resulting in a wealth of zero-pass, one-pass possessions where the team “just gave the ball up.” 

Ball movement is particularly valuable to a roster as deep as Duke’s this year. Proctor has excelled as a facilitator throughout the end of the 2022-23 season as well as early this year; however, Friday saw the Sydney native give up three turnovers on his way to five assists. McCain saw identical numbers in the assists and turnovers columns. Cleaner distributing will be needed as Duke looks to smoothen out the offense and capitalize on more possessions. 

“We have too much firepower that we can have on the court just to go one-on-one,” Scheyer said. 

Ultimately, the passing game will be the crucial avenue through which the Blue Devils can fully tap into their wealth of talent.

Bright lights

Duke’s imminent ranked matchup has brought out energy in the locker room from a team eager to compete on the national stage. McCain identified it as a “big-time game” and “why [he] came to Duke.” 

The sentiment is not unwarranted — the Champions Classic never fails to yield thrilling matchups between the nation’s most talented squads. The inherent rivalry pervasive among these elite groups will continue to fuel an incredible level of energy and drive to win, making for a competitive early season display.

Duke currently sits at 7-5 all-time in the event while Michigan State is 5-7. The Blue Devils look to claim their fourth victory in five matches against the Spartans since the event’s inception in 2011. The teams most recently clashed in the Champions Classic in 2020, a 75-69 victory for the Spartans at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

“I felt going into the year they could be as good as anybody. I still feel that way,” Scheyer said of Duke’s opponent. 

As such, the clash of talented teams on a big stage will be determined by how each side rises to the occasion and fights to continue the legacy of two programs fundamentally defined by winning.


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