Michigan State, Duke 'trying to find ourselves' ahead of rematch of 2019 NCAA thriller
East Lansing — There’s no trip to the Final Four on the line Tuesday night at the Breslin Center.
But as No. 10 Duke comes to town to take on No. 11 Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a shot at winning the national title is about the only thing that’s missing. Sure, there would be a bit more buzz if both teams hadn’t suffered unexpected losses last week — then-No. 1 Duke lost at home to Stephen F. Austin, while then-No. 3 Michigan State lost to Virginia Tech at the Maui Invitational — but anytime these programs square off, it’s usually required viewing.
It certainly was last season when Michigan State beat Duke in the East Region final of the NCAA Tournament to reach the Final Four. This game comes far short of that, but it still will have the home crowd jumping as Duke plays at the Breslin Center for just the second time, the last trip coming in 2003.
“It’s an honor just to be in a program like this where you get to play against the Dukes and the Kentuckys and the Kansases of the world,” Michigan State senior guard Cassius Winston said. “That’s what you come to Michigan State for. You get a chance to play the best, you go get chance to beat the best when you come here. It’s certainly a big game for us, but it's gonna be a big game for them, too.
“It’s gonna be a crazy environment and I feel like we’ve got a really good team and a really good coaching staff, so we should be all right.”
All right has been debatable for both teams to this point. Michigan State (5-2) has battled through the emotional toll of Winston processing the death of his brother while filling some rotation holes, and Duke has been adjusting to a young lineup.
It’s led to inconsistency from both teams, something most expect will be ironed out as the season progresses.
“We’re going to have to work through a bunch of things with this group,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said last week. “It’ll take time and we’re going to try to muck it out and we know we’re not a top-five team — maybe not even a top 25 team in the country right now.
“It’s a different journey for our fans, for me and it’s a much different journey. We’re not pounding our chests, but we have a great group of kids and they’re working hard. We have a really tough week next week that would be tough even if you were a top-five team.”
Izzo understands Krzyzewski's position.
“We’re trying to find ourselves as a team,” Izzo said. “We’re still going through a lot. It’s the way it is, and we're trying to find our way and pull together. Cassius has been incredible when you think of what he's been through. But yesterday I thought he had one of his best practices in three weeks. And that is going to continue. It’s not going to change overnight. He's got to be one of the guys to lead a lot of our young guys that are playing and it's hard to do that under certain circumstances. So he's been fighting through ... he's, he's really done some incredible things under those circumstances.
“We're actually doing pretty good under everything that we’ve gone through, and I think we’ve got a golden opportunity to play against a very good team who's doing just like us, trying to find themselves.”
The Blue Devils (7-1) will be without freshman guard Cassius Stanley, who is out with a leg injury. However, sophomore guard Tre Jones has been playing well, as has freshman big man Vernon Carey, a player Michigan State recruited hard, right up to the day Carey committed to Duke.
It obviously represents a change from last year’s matchup as the core of the Blue Devils’ roster has changed. For that matter, the Spartans are still working to replace Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, which means there’s not much to draw from last season’s NCAA Tournament game.
“Last time it was win or go home,” junior forward Xavier Tillman said. “So last time it was like, we have to win. I don't care by how much or how we play, we just have to get the win. This mindset is somewhat the same, but at the end of the day, if we lose it's not the end of our season. We’ve still got that kind of on our side.
“So the mindset is still being aggressive and still seeing how we rank against these top teams and seeing what we can work on and really focusing on us and making sure we handle our business.”
Handling their business means not getting caught up in the environment, one that will be heightened by the fact former Spartan Draymond Green will be on hand to have his No. 23 retired during a halftime ceremony. The three-time NBA champion keeps close tabs on the program and will, no doubt, have a message for them before the game.
And you can bet one of them will be not to pay attention to the name on the front of the jersey.
“If I relished in it, I'd be playing in awe of them,” Izzo said. “I'm not doing that. I relish the opportunity that our team gets. I relish the opportunity that our fans get.”
As sophomore Aaron Henry pointed out, “It’s just basketball.”
“At the end of the day, you can go out there and be nervous you can go out there and have all the jitters in the world,” Henry said. “But whenever you get over those jitters, two minutes in, 30 seconds in, or if you’ve got them at all, I mean, it's still gonna be basketball.”
Yes, it’s still basketball. But this game comes with a pair of Hall of Fame coaches, the bright lights of national TV and piercing noise of a packed house.
Yep, it’s basketball, but it’s another level.
“I think the atmosphere will be off the charts,” Izzo said.
Duke at Michigan State
► Tip-off: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
► TV/radio: ESPN/760 AM
► Records: No. 11 Michigan State 5-2, No. 10 Duke 7-1
► Line: Michigan State by 5