EAST LANSING – Clearly, the focus must be Jahlil Okafor.
On second thought, maybe it all starts with Tyus Jones, the other Duke freshman Tom Izzo tried to recruit, a point guard who plays like a senior. Focus too much on him, though, and actual senior guard Quinn Cook (15.5 points per game) will kill you.
Never mind – 6-foot-6 freshman manchild Justise Winslow just sliced through the lane and threw down a dunk.
“He just looks like a player that went from a little freshman who didn’t know what the hell was going on to a pretty polished player,” Izzo said of Winslow, one of the stories of the NCAA tournament, in breaking down the Blue Devils on Tuesday. “I mean, he’s really made some jumps.”
And if the Spartans (27-11) are going to advance past the Blue Devils (33-4) on Saturday in the national semifinals at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium (6:09 p.m., TBS), they’ll need to demonstrate a jump or two on defense from the teams’ first meeting. Both teams have improved since then, and both are excelling on different sides of the ball – MSU’s tournament defensive field-goal percentage of 33.9% is second among teams that have played more than one game, and Duke is third in the country this season in shooting (50.2%).
“I think our defense is a lot better now,” MSU senior forward Branden Dawson said when asked about an 81-71 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic on Nov. 18 in Indianapolis. The Blue Devils shot 54% (27 for 50) from the floor that night and 7 for 14 from three, though they also got 24 of their points directly off 13 MSU turnovers.
Cook had 19 points, Jones and Okafor 17 apiece, and Winslow scored 15. Back then, Duke started with a big lineup that featured Winslow at small forward and Amile Jefferson at power forward. Now, Mike Krzyzewski is starting small with guard Matt Jones replacing Jefferson, and Winslow at power forward.
That means more Dawson on Winslow this time than last time.
“Winslow, he’s a good player,” Dawson said. “He’s young and he’s talented, so that matchup will definitely be a good one.”
Duke also no longer has guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who had three points in 12 minutes off the bench in that game and was dismissed from the team on Jan. 29. So the Blue Devils have less depth, but Matt Jones is adding to the offense and had 16 points and four three-pointers in Sunday’s South Regional final win over Gonzaga.
That makes a fifth concern to go with the four constants this season, and coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“They’ve got enough weapons around them that I think we’ve got to clamp down on five guys and then probably on Mike,” Izzo joked Tuesday, after two solid days of discussing his 1-8 record against Krzyzewski. “We’ve got to guard six guys in this tournament.”
But really, Izzo said, the Spartans will try to find a balance in defending the 6-11 Okafor. Izzo has never been a big believer in doubling the post and leaving shooters open, but in the first meeting the MSU big men got some help from guards cheating into his area when he got the ball.
Typically, Izzo wants to take away shooters. And he enjoys veteran guards, such as his duo of Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine, whom he said “can play on a lot of teams around the country.”
“I think Quinn Cook is still the chemistry guy that stirs the drink for that team,” Izzo said of the 6-2 senior, likely to be matched up with Trice. “He just seems to guard the right people, make the right shots, do a lot of things.”
And Tyus Jones blew open the first game with a scoring spurt at MSU’s expense. And Winslow is playing like a top-five pick. So maybe the question of MSU’s top defensive concern isn’t so easy to answer.
“Probably Okafor,” Valentine said. “He’s so big and talented, and he can do a lot of things.”
No. 7 seed MSU (27-11) vs. No. 1 seed Duke (33-4)
• When: 6:09 p.m. Saturday
• Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis
• TV/radio: TBS/Spartan Sports Network, including WJIM 1240-AM and WMMQ 94.9-FM