INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Any other year, this would probably be the premier matchup of the Final Four.
On one bench sits top-seeded Duke and its record-setting coach, Mike Krzyzewski. On the other is upstart Michigan State and Tom Izzo, one of the finest coaches in the game come March.
But with overall No. 1 seed Kentucky chasing perfection against those loveable goofballs from Wisconsin, the opening game of Saturday night’s national semifinals has taken on an undercard feel — two of the game’s most tradition-rich programs kicking things off at Lucas Oil Stadium before a massive crowd and potentially record-setting TV audience.
“We’ve been that way all year: overlooked, doubted the whole time,” said the Spartans’ Travis Trice, who Krzyzewski lauded as the biggest breakout star of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
“But we don’t really look like it like that,” Trice added, moments later. “If we win, people are going to be talking about us. We win a national championship, everybody will be talking.”
The seventh-seeded Spartans (27-11) have certainly come a long way since November, when they were routed by the Blue Devils (33-4) just down the street at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Freshman guard Tum Tum Nairn has replaced Bryn Forbes in the starting lineup, giving Michigan State a much-needed shot of speed. Trice and fellow senior Branden Dawson have learned to shoulder the leadership role. And just about everyone else has found their niche for a team that missed out on the Final Four a year ago, when everyone expected it to contend for the title.
“That was a devastating loss last year,” Izzo recalled Friday. “That’s what the beauty and the terror of the tournament is, you’ve got to play well six straight games to win.”
They’ve already done that four times, beating Georgia and then knocking off in succession second-seeded Virginia, third-seeded Oklahoma and fourth-seeded Louisville.
Now, they have a chance to topple a No. 1 seed.
Relying on stingy defense, the Blue Devils have run roughshod through the opening two weeks of the tournament. Even when shots weren’t falling and All-American forward Jahlil Okafor was held in check by Utah and Gonzaga, Coach K’s bunch of bluebloods have been just fine.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been potholes on the road to Indianapolis.
The Blue Devils went through a lull in January, losing to North Carolina State and getting pounded by Miami. Junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon was booted from the team, the first player to be dismissed by Krzyzewski in 35 seasons. And there were times when the trio of Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow looked like wide-eyed freshmen rather than superstar prospects.
All those growing pains? They turned Duke into a monster by March.
“It’s just special. You can just feel it in the air now, how important it is, what it means to be here,” Jones said. “Just look out and see how many seats are out there. On Saturday night, those seats are all going to be filled. It’s a special feeling.”
There is no shortage of story lines as two of college basketball’s premier programs try to move one step closer to another national title. Here are some to watch:
OKAFOR AND JONES: Izzo should be quite familiar with Duke’s star freshmen — he recruited both of them heavily. The close friends even visited the Michigan State campus in East Lansing before committing to the Blue Devils. “They were one of the first schools to recruit me,” Okafor said. “I love Tom Izzo and their coaching staff. They have a great relationship with my family.”
TURNOVER TROUBLE: When the teams met Nov. 18, the Blue Devils forced 13 turnovers that they turned into 24 points. Izzo has been harping on ball security ever since. “That’s definitely been the key since that game,” Trice said. “We feel like we beat ourselves.”
DAWSON VS. WINSLOW: Sure, there are other stars in the spotlight, but this could be one of the pivotal matchups. Dawson is arguably Michigan State’s toughest defender, and Winslow has been one of the Blue Devils’ hottest players, averaging 14 points in the NCAA Tournament.
THE COACHING MATCHUP: Krzyzewski and Izzo have met nine times, and Coach K has won eight of them. That includes a 2-1 mark in the NCAA Tournament. But there may be no coach more dangerous as an underdog than Izzo, who has a record 13 tournament wins as the lower-seeded team.
“You know, stats are unbelievable, man,” Krzyzewski said. “That doesn’t make a difference at all. They’re going to be ready. You know what? They don’t lack talent.”
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