'It's not talked about enough': Confident MSU respects Duke, but seeks its due, too
Washington — People have been trying to put a label all season on Michigan State.
Even as the injuries started to pile up, beginning with Joshua Langford, who played his final game back on Dec. 29, the Spartans just kept winning.
It was getting hard to figure out. Michigan State won seven in a row after Langford went out of the lineup with a foot injury and might have looked even better without him. Before that, there were three games without Matt McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens battled back problems all season until he was finally felled by an ankle injury in the Big Ten tournament championship game.
Throw in the five games missed for junior center Nick Ward and, yet, none of it slowed Michigan State. Outside of a three-game slide at the start of February, the Spartans have been rolling.
“Connected” has been the popular word used to describe the Spartans lately, and they’ve certainly been that. Resilient? Sure. Tough? Yup. Selfless? Yeah, that too.
But let’s try one more theory on for size as No. 2 Michigan State (31-6) gets set to take on No. 1 Duke (32-5) on Sunday in the East Region finals of the NCAA Tournament.
Maybe Michigan State is just good.
No further explanations. No qualifiers. Perhaps the Spartans are a group of damn good college basketball players.
Maybe there are no lottery picks in the group like Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. off of last year’s team. But it hardly means these Spartans are just a bunch of guys running up and down the court.
“Absolutely,” freshman Aaron Henry said when asked if Michigan State’s talent is being overlooked as it prepares to take on the star-studded Blue Devils. “They got good players, but we’ve got a good collection of talent, too. On our end we have a feel for each other on the court that is unmatched at times and it’s not talked about enough.
“There are a lot of good players on this team and we’ve got a feel for what we can do and the position coach puts us in we can handle.
"We pick our spots, we attack for each other. It’s something to see.”
Henry should have a pretty good idea. He might be one of those supremely talented players that only now is starting to reveal himself, some 37 games into his freshman season. His athleticism has been enticing all season, just on the verge of breaking out at any moment only to be suppressed by the typical growing pains of a first-year player.
Against LSU on Friday, it all came together as Henry went for a career-high 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
But that’s just one example. Cassius Winston is the Big Ten player of the year that is third in the nation in assists and makes triples at a 40.2-percent clip. Kenny Goins at just 6-7 is among the leaders in the Big Ten in rebounding and has become a deadly 3-point shooter in the second half of the season.
Xavier Tillman has taken off after getting the chance to start for the injured Nick Ward. He’s been an outstanding low-post defender who has scored in double figures in four of the last five games while grabbing better than eight rebounds a game. Senior McQuaid has become one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation while making 42.6 percent of his 3-pointers.
In fact, Duke doesn’t have a single rotation player shooting better than 37.5 percent from 3-point range. Michigan State has four counting freshman Gabe Brown and Goins is at 35.8 percent.
Michigan State is fourth in the nation in offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com and ninth defensively while Duke is seventh on both offense and defense.
However you cut it, that’s talent, something the Blue Devils see.
“They have big guys down low, they have some shooters and they have great point guard,” Duke freshman RJ Barrett said. “That’s a formula for success right there. That’s why they’re in the Elite Eight. They have a great defense. They’re going to give us their best shot, but I feel like our defense is good as well, so it’s going to be a dog fight.”
Not that Michigan State cares if anyone thinks its talent matches up with Duke’s.
“I don’t think it matters,” Goins said. “As long as we keep winning we’re not worried about what people say. That’s all we’ve been worried about all season. I think that’s why we’ve been winning so much, just not letting any outside distractions, any outside noise get to us. We’re worried about 16 guys in the locker room and the four or five coaches we got and after that it’s just noise to us.”
Still, something separates this Michigan State team.
There have been close ones and talented ones, but it’s hard to get away from the word connected. The key is adding the talent into the equation and you get a team that is on the verge of its first Final Four since 2015.
The combination of skill and togetherness became clear to Tillman late in the season when the Spartans were getting ready to face rival Michigan.
“They were a great team at that point in the season and everybody was looking to play those guys,” Tillman said. “Everyone was expecting those guys to make it really far in the tournament, so beating those guys three times we said, ‘OK, we’re doing something right,’ and we needed to keep the flow going with whatever we were doing,”
That flow has been constant all the way to the Elite Eight.
Duke has the stars everyone knows about — Zion Williamson, Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones.
But Michigan State has some dudes, too. They also happen to play as well together as a lot of teams Izzo has coached the last 24 years.
“This is a very connected team,” Izzo said. “And I used to use the word close or everybody got along, but connected means that there's just a line, one to another, all the way down. And whether that will be good enough tomorrow, I don't know.
"But I'm looking forward to the opportunity.”
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.