Three points: Toughness in the paint, trust in the freshmen can lift Duke men's basketball past Michigan State

Sophomore Kyle Filipowski led Duke with 25 points in its loss to Arizona Friday night.
Sophomore Kyle Filipowski led Duke with 25 points in its loss to Arizona Friday night.

No. 9 Duke men’s basketball is set to take on No. 18 Michigan State Tuesday night in a back-to-back top-25 matchup for the Blue Devils. Before tipoff in Chicago, the Blue Zone is here with three keys to a Duke victory:

Toughness and physicality inside

Throughout most of Friday night’s 78-73 loss to Arizona, Duke was outmuscled, outworked and outplayed by an opponent that seemed better prepared for the moment. Nowhere was this more apparent than inside the paint, where the Wildcats collected twelve more rebounds and eight more points than the Blue Devils. Duke’s main problems lay defensively, where it was pushed around by Arizona’s interior duo of Oumar Ballo and Keshad Johnson. To bounce back against No. 18 Michigan State, physicality and toughness around the basket will be crucial for the Blue Devils.

After Dereck Lively II’s departure to the NBA in the offseason, Duke’s interior defense is one of the main weaknesses of an otherwise star-studded team. Sophomore center Kyle Filipowski may be one of the best offensive players in college basketball, but there are still many holes in the defensive part of his game. Against the Wildcats, the Westtown, N.Y., native often needed forward Mark Mitchell’s help to contain Ballo, which inevitably created mismatches on the outside. Backup centers Ryan Young and Christian Reeves also struggled to match Arizona’s physical style of play.

Tuesday’s matchup against the Spartans will allow the Blue Devils to show that they will not be pushed around inside the paint. While Duke’s current roster may not be able to replicate Lively’s natural defensive abilities, a greater emphasis on tough, interior defense may be the key to victory.

Trust the freshmen 

The Blue Devils boast the second-best freshman class in the country, but the four of them have not collectively played significant minutes through the first two games of the season. While guard Jared McCain seems a crucial member of the starting lineup, the other three freshmen are not seeing the court as much as anticipated, especially forwards Sean Stewart and TJ Power. Against the Wildcats, guard Caleb Foster and Stewart amassed less than 17 minutes of combined playing time, while Power never even got off the bench. 

It’s not like the freshmen have stumbled when given a chance to impress. In his regular-season debut against Dartmouth, Foster put up 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting. On the other hand, Stewart’s remarkable physical gifts have been evident every time he’s stepped onto the court. Especially against more physical teams, his raw athleticism may be the key to fix Duke’s defensive liabilities in the paint. 

While inexperienced players generally receive fewer opportunities in big games early in the season, the Blue Devils’ depth is one of its strengths, particularly with its highly-touted freshman class. Against Michigan State, the “Freshman Four” could be the collective secret weapon to lead Duke to a win. 

Proctor’s performance

Coming into the season, sophomore guard Tyrese Proctor was slated to make a big jump from his first year in Durham. A projected lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft, the Sydney native was included in many preseason lists for the potential breakout stars of college basketball. However, the Blue Devil captain struggled to live up to his potential Friday night. Proctor shot just 33% from the field against Arizona while going 1-of-6 from beyond the arc. With less than a minute left in the game, his ill-timed travel cost Duke its final chance to take the lead. 

Proctor is undoubtedly one of the most talented players on this Blue Devil roster, and Tuesday’s contest against Michigan State is the perfect opportunity for the sophomore to bounce back.


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