Bob Wojnowski and Matt Charboneau break down MSU's win over LSU in the NCAA Tournament while looking ahead to the matchup with Duke. The Detroit News
Washington — Invincible? Not anymore. Insurmountable? Hardly. Intimidating? Doubtful.
Duke hasn’t been beaten in this NCAA Tournament, but the Blue Devils have been chopped down to a manageable behemoth, no matter how daunting Zion Williamson appears. And Michigan State has risen as a legitimate combatant, no matter what the head-to-head history suggests.
Ignore the hype, break it down to physical basketball, and this should be a bruising clash Sunday at 5:05 p.m., with the winner advancing to the Final Four. Of course, we have to address the mythological obstacles, the white whale and the white elephant. Duke is the Moby Dick beast Tom Izzo has been chasing most of his career, the level he’s sought since he won the national title in 2000. And Mike Krzyzewski’s 11-1 record against Izzo is the elephant in the locker room.
Suddenly, amazingly, this has morphed into the Spartans’ best chance. The only time they beat Duke in Izzo’s 24 seasons was 2005, for a spot in the Elite Eight. The numbers don’t mean anything in this game, but give Izzo credit, he chuckles at the obsession about his obsession.
“You're calling Coach K a white whale, huh?” Izzo said Saturday. “Everybody has a standard you want to get to. … (But) I've got bigger goals than just beating Duke. I'd like to get back to another Final Four. I'd like to win another national championship. But I think I can focus on (Sunday night) and see if we could change that 1-11. We've played them a lot and we've knocked on the door. It hasn't opened yet. One of these days it's going to open.”
Izzo has 605 career victories and seven Final Fours. Krzyzewski has 1,132 victories in 39 seasons, 12 Final Fours and five national championships. In the grand scheme, Coach K is uncatchable. In the present-day scheme — confident, experienced Spartans against talented, youthful Blue Devils — it’s a whale of a collision.
No. 1 Duke is only a two-point favorite over No. 2 Michigan State, a function of the Blue Devils’ close calls and the Spartans’ single-minded drive. Here’s the other thing worth noting: Michigan State is talented, not just feisty and physical. The Spartans have enough big bodies — Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins, Nick Ward, even 6-6 Aaron Henry — to throw at Williamson, the 6-7, 285-pound sensation.
Williamson has been terrific, especially since returning from an ankle injury when he blew out a shoe against North Carolina on Feb. 20. He’s averaging 27 points in the postseason, including the ACC tournament. He had 23 when Duke slipped past Virginia Tech in the Elite Eight Friday. He’s hit 68 of 97 shots (70.1 percent) in tournament action, and not all of them are dunks or two-foot putbacks.
In a sense, the legend of Zion is bigger than the kid himself, undersized height-wise, over-sized in other ways, as nimble as a near-300-pounder can be. It’ll be a surprise if he’s not the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, although Murray State’s Ja Morant is generating buzz.
None of that matters to the Spartans, who used their inside strength to pummel LSU.
“If you just watched (Zion’s) highlights, you’d probably get overwhelmed, like this guy’s athleticism is unbelievable,” the 6-8 Tillman said. “But when you break down the film and you see his missed shots, or you see his turnovers, or his mixed defensive assignments, it kind of makes him more human, because he makes mistakes just like everyone else.”
Actually, Williamson isn’t Duke’s leading scorer; that’s another freshman phenom, R.J. Barrett, at 22.8. Williamson can be turnover-prone and isn’t much of an outside threat, and in fact, the Blue Devils shoot only 31 percent on 3-pointers, their biggest weakness. But Williamson is a defensive force with a knack for steals and is a terrific rebounder.
His appeal is in his rarity, a big man with incredible skills, a dynamic personality and a fierce competitiveness.
“He's really got everything,” Krzyzewski said. “This is not a phony guy. And he's more than a dunker, a lot more than a dunker. He's a very, very special human being and player.”
Williamson sounds humble, and after a year of scrutiny, he doesn’t venture outside the quotable norms. Ask him about the Spartans and he’s well-rehearsed.
“They're very aggressive and physical and they rebound the ball very well,” Williamson said. “And they have a great motor. So they're a great team. Their bigs are very great as well.”
The Spartans’ maturation has been remarkable to watch, from capturing both Big Ten titles to winning three NCAA games by an average of 16 points. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, have been escaping, quite literally. They nipped UCF in the second round 77-76 when Aubrey Hawkins’ buzzer-beating tip rolled around the rim and off.
The other night, they edged Virginia Tech 75-73 when Ahmed Hill’s short shot off a perfect lob missed as the horn sounded. It’s easy to see those two outcomes and say Duke is vulnerable, and it is. Freshman forward Cam Reddish also is dealing with a sore knee and might not play.
It’s also to easy to wonder if the Blue Devils are due to roll, as the overwhelming Tournament favorite. The guess is, Duke will pull off more heart-breaking magic, but a Michigan State victory would not be remotely surprising.
You can argue Izzo is due, as is his injury-bitten team. Izzo and Krzyzewski have a respectful relationship and both are fantastic advocates of the game. But make no mistake, they’re coaching adversaries at an elite level.
The Spartans exited early the past three Tournaments, which fostered an edge we haven’t seen in more-talented groups. While Izzo jokingly compared Williamson to Bears linebacker Khalil Mack, he knows the Spartans have multiple defenders to use on him.
“Yes, they have Zion and I don't have a player like that,” Izzo said. “But we've had to regroup, and I think we grew from that. For some reason we’re not as big and strong as some Michigan State teams, but this group has been a little more fearless. I think all the adversity we've gone through has made us more mentally tough than physically tough.”
Perhaps mentally tough enough not to be intimidated by ghosts. Included in that 1-11 mark are two recent NCAA Tournament losses to Duke, 71-61 in the 2013 Sweet 16, and 81-61 in the 2015 Final Four.
Spartan players brush off the history, although they admit they’d love to win it for Izzo. Krzyzewski also brushes off the history with a well-practiced perspective.
“Those stats don't mean anything,” Krzyzewski said. “You play the team that you're going to play against right now. And they're capable of handing us a defeat.”
Yes the Spartans are, perhaps as capable as they’ve ever been. Duke has plenty on its side — Zion, Barrett, Coach K, fortunate rolls and a pristine past. Michigan State has plenty too, more than many expected, certainly enough to give the Blue Devils all they can handle.
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