Pick – Analysis
Michigan State is the odd-team out in the Final 4 as a 7-seed with the other three being 1-seeds. However, the Spartans have covered in all Four of their Tournament Games, something only Duke can say. The Blue Devils, having beaten MSU 81-71 earlier in the season, opened as a -5 point favorite at 5Dimes.
These teams have come a long way since that matchup back in November. Probably more so Michigan State, as they didn’t have the best regular season and were actually a question to make the Tournament at one point in February. Duke has gone through a few things as well, among them kicking Rasheed Sulaimon off the team.
The Spartans couldn’t handle Jahlil Okafor (no one can) in the first Game, and they also got into foul trouble. While MSU shot well from the field (50%), they only made five three-pointers, which is abnormal for how good of a shooting team they are. Duke made 20 free throws and made shots at a better rate (54%), while looking like they were playing on another level. The main area both of these teams have improved has been on the defensive end, and we’ve seen that throughout the Tournament. MSU has held all of their opponents to ridiculous numbers and Duke just stopped Gonzaga to 52 points.
Okafor is the immediate problem for Michigan State because not only are Matt Costello and Gavin SChilling smaller, but they also tend to get into foul trouble more often than not (both fouled out vs. Louisville). If that happens, former walk-on Colby Wollenman may have to see minutes (16 total in March Madness) and when he defended Okafor in the first matchup, things didn’t end well.
In addition to Okafor, Justise Winslow has been playing great in the Tournament, while Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones have only missed a combined eight minutes of action in the last three Games (Cook and Jones had zero turnovers in 80 minutes vs. Gonzaga). Michigan State’s defense has been good, but they haven’t seen an offense like this yet. They did a solid job against bigs like TaShawn Thomas and Montrezl Harrell, but Okafor is not only bigger, but has refined post moves that not many in the college Game can stop. If the Spartans decide to double team at all, that will only leave open looks for knockdown shooters. Or if they go the Notre Dame route, Michigan State could decide to just let Okafor beat them, but keep the three-point shooting in check. It’s definitely something Izzo will have to look into this week.
On the other end, Travis Trice has been incredible for the Spartans, winning the East Region’s Most OUtstanding Player. He’s hitting threes, but also taking guys to the hole and finishing at the rim. Trice could have a good Game, but they’ll still need other guys to step up to have a chance. With Matt Jones starting for Duke (instead of Amile Jefferson), Denzel Valentine has a better matchup and will see less of Winslow. Of course, Coach K could switch that up and play Amile Jefferson more (as he did in the first Game). Valentine can really help out due to his size, shooting and ability to see the floor. Branden Dawson is the x-factor for Michigan State and he’ll need his best Game yet, especially if he’s the one defending Winslow.
Dawson’s defense has been great all season, but his importance will be on the offensive glass and becoming a factor scoring. He’s been inconsistent for the most part in this Tournament. Bryn Forbes was huge against Louisville and Tum Tum Nairn went into attack mode in the second half, which was a positive. If SChilling and Costello stay out of foul trouble and give Okafor some kind of trouble, the Spartans will be in this Game.
Both teams are playing well, hence the Four straight covers, but the better skilled team usually comes out on top in those cases, and that’s Duke. Of course, Tom Izzo is also 1-8 all-time against Duke, so there’s that.
As for the 5-point spread, if the Spartans are hitting their shots and continue their stout defense, there’s no reason they can’t keep it closer than the first Game.
Our Model has this Game right on the number, predicting a 70-65 Duke win using full season data and a 66-62 Duke win when using data from only the last 7 Games. That being said, we’ll take Our chances with the underdog here as an outright win is obviously a strong possibility. Michigan State +5