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Michigan State keeps focus on itself ahead of Duke showdown in empty Cameron Indoor

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

A former Michigan State football coach used to always say that every game counts as one.

That coach, of course, was George Perles, and it’s a saying that has been around the Spartans program for years. No matter the opponent, no matter the circumstance, one game was one game. Simple as that.

Malik Hall and Michigan State will play at Duke on Tuesday as part of the Champions Classic.

Just don’t try and convince Tom Izzo to buy into it, at least not now as No. 8 Michigan State gets set to travel to Durham, N.C., to take on No. 6 Duke at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium as part of the Champions Classic.

“I'm more of a realist,” Izzo said Monday. “I know there's bigger games and, you know, coach talk, ‘They all count one,’ … who's kidding who? I think the players, coaches, media, everybody knows there's bigger games.”

This game certainly qualifies, even if the environment will seem a bit different than a normal season.

First of all, the Champions Classic is typically played at a neutral site. However, this season’s event — which includes Kansas vs. Kentucky — that was scheduled to be played in Chicago was altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Jayhawks and Wildcats are playing in Indianapolis, but the Spartans and Blue Devils came to an agreement to play it at Duke with the Blue Devils agreeing to a return game in East Lansing sometime in the future.

And when the Spartans (2-0) get to Cameron Indoor, one of the most raucous and intimidating venues to play in anywhere in the country, it will be virtually empty as no fans will be in attendance.

“It’ll be different playing at Cameron without fans just like it's different for Notre Dame to play here without fans,” Izzo said, referencing Michigan State’s opponent in an 80-70 victory on Saturday. “I think we have two of the best basketball fan bases, student bases, in the whole country. It’ll be different, but it's still Cameron, it’s still Duke and that's what we’ve got to make sure we tell our players.”

The players don’t sound too worried about the fact there are no fans.

Michigan State has played two home games in front of an empty arena, beating Eastern Michigan and Notre Dame, while Duke has an 81-71 win over Coppin State at home under its belt.

“It’ll be interesting,” sophomore Malik Hall said. “Actually, the school I came from — Sunrise (Christian Academy in Kansas) — we were very small school, so we never really had a lot of fans. At the most we probably had like 40 people for our games and the road games were just about the same, maybe even less. So, I’m used to playing with nobody really there watching. I think it'll be fun, though.”

What Izzo and his staff are focusing on more isn’t the fact there will be no fans. Instead, they’re trying to emphasize continuing to play the way the Spartans have in the first two games.

Michigan State has played well for nearly two entire games, sharing the ball on offense while looking connected on defense. The Spartans have 53 assists on 60 made baskets and are playing 10 to 11 players with each seeing meaningful playing time.

Add in the limited film on Duke, and Izzo wants his team to focus primarily on itself.

“We’re telling our players that we’ve got to go down there and worry more about Michigan State,” Izzo said. “Yeah, we're gonna worry about Duke, but we’ve got one game to watch of those new guys. We’ve got to worry more about what we do and stay fundamentally sound on our cutouts, our rebounding or not turning the ball over, our transition defense.

“So, I'm not making a big deal. I'm not trying to change a lot of things. We're just going to go down there and play our best and see where the chips fall.”

As always, Duke (1-0) offers a stiff test.

The Blue Devils have experience mixed with young talent, led by freshmen Jalen Johnson and DJ Steward. Johnson, a forward, had 19 points and 19 rebounds in Duke’s first game while Steward, a guard, had 24 points and nine rebounds.

“They’ve got some guys on that team that have hurt us in the past,” Izzo said. “But I think matchup-wise, maybe we have a few more bigs and they have a couple of more guards. They can go with three small guards at times, but I think we're athletic enough to deal with that. And so I think it's going to be a hell of a matchup and maybe one of the better games on paper.”

These games usually are. Rarely does a Duke-Michigan State game result in a blowout, even if the Blue Devils and coach Mike Krzyzewski have gotten the best of the Spartans. Izzo is 2-12 all-time against Duke with both wins coming in the NCAA Tournament, the last one coming in 2019 when Michigan State beat Duke to get to the Final Four.

Of course, in the rematch last season in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Blue Devils dominated at the Breslin Center. It’s that game Izzo wants his players to remember.

“I told them to worry about what happened last year,” Izzo said. “We got punched in the mouth last year. It's kind of our turn to repay the favor, and if you're a good team and a program is good as ours now, you shouldn't get caught up in the aura of Duke. You should respect them like you do Kansas and Kentucky and (North) Carolina and teams like that, but you shouldn't get caught up in it. I hope that I do a better job of that and I hope they do a better job.”

No. 8 Michigan State at No. 6 Duke

Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, North Carolina

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 2-0, Duke 1-0

Outlook: Duke and Michigan State are meeting for the fifth consecutive season with the Blue Devils winning three of those four contests. One game was part of the Champions Classic, while two came as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The other was in the NCAA Tournament. … This is the 50th top-10 matchup in Cameron Indoor Stadium history. … The last 10 games in the series have been decided by an average 8.4 points per game. … Michigan State is 3-6 in the Champions Classic while Duke is 6-3.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau