Washington — It’s the matchup that’s been talked about for the last couple of weeks.
When the Selection Committee revealed the field for this season’s NCAA Tournament, the attention immediately turned to the East Region where Michigan State, which had just followed up a Big Ten regular-season championship with at conference tournament title, was placed in the same region as the No. 1 overall seed Duke.
While many thought the No. 2-seeded Spartans deserved better after the season they had, it didn’t take long before the buzz started about a possible Elite Eight matchup between two of the top programs in the nation.
It’s here, now, as the Blue Devils and Spartans square off at 5:05 p.m. Sunday at Capital One Arena. The winner gets a spot in the Final Four. The loser gets a pat on the back.
MSU's Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry and Kenny Goins met the media Saturday, ahead of Sunday's Elite Eight game against Duke. The Detroit News
“I love it,” Michigan State junior guard Cassius Winston said. “This is what you play for. It’s the fun, it’s the thrill of it, you want to play the best teams, you want to play on the biggest stage and that’s what it’s all about.”
That feeling was shared in the opposing locker room.
“I’m going to be very excited obviously,” Duke freshman Zion Williamson said. “Both teams have winning history in their programs. Being out there, I’m probably going to look around and be thankful that I’m out here. I could easily not be in this position. I never took that for granted. Gonna get out there and try to hoop.”
This is the 16th time Mike Krzyzewski has led Duke to the Elite Eight and the 10th time Tom Izzo has taken the Spartans this far. Interestingly, neither team has made the Final Four since they squared off in the national semifinals in 2015. Duke won that night and captured the national championship two days later. Since then, each team has had different tournament paths, but both have failed to reach the final weekend.
This will be the fifth time Izzo and Krzyzewski have coached against each other in the NCAA Tournament, with Michigan State getting its only win in the 2005 Sweet 16.
Even so, Izzo, like the players, is relishing the shot at improving that record.
“Everything we've gotten this year, from our Big Ten championship to the Big Ten tournament, to this Elite Eight appearance, has been earned and not given,” Izzo said. “And that makes it special. And the guys … they've taken me along for the ride.
“So we're excited to be here. We know that Duke is the No. 1 overall seed, and they've earned all their stuff, too, with the way that program has been, Coach K and the players. So hopefully it will be as good as a game as the billing.”
If it lives up to the billing it will only add to cutting down the nets. After all, that’s why the players on both teams went to Michigan State and Duke.
“At the end of the day, everyone comes to Michigan State expecting that they're going to go to a Final Four,” fifth-year senior Kenny Goins said. “That was the thing for a while. This is our chance to make it to a Final Four and it happens to be against another powerhouse in college basketball. The excitement level there is taken up 10-fold. We're excited for it and ready for the challenge because it's Duke. They've been the high point this season so far and just to go up against what everyone is calling the best and hopefully show out, as a competitor it just gives you motivation.”
Winston handed out eight assists in the in over LSU on Friday, the 31st game this season he has handed out at least six.
Those eight assists gave the junior guard 279 for the season, surpassing Mateen Cleaves as the most in a single season in both Michigan State and Big Ten history. Winston is averaging 7.5 assists a game.
Cleaves had 274 assists in 1998-1999 or an average of 7.2 a game. Magic Johnson had 269 in 1978-79 for an average of 8.4 a game.
… Duke is playing as a No. 1-seed for the 14th time, the third-most in NCAA Tournament history. It’s the first time the Blue Devils have been a top seed since 2015 when they won the national championship. The Blue Devils have been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in 19 of the past 23 seasons.
NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 1 DUKE
Tip-off: 5:05 p.m., Sunday, Capital One Arena, Washington
Records: Michigan State 31-6; Duke 32-5
Next up: Winner advances to Final Four and will face Texas Tech.