Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski have stolen some of the pregame headlines, but when Duke and Michigan State square off Friday, the outcome will be decided by the players on the court.
Both coaches have a history of tournament success. Two of the most influential figures in modern college basketball, Izzo and Krzyzewski continue to build powerful programs with some marquee players.
Regardless of the outcome, this game will be one of the best matchups to watch in the Sweet 16 and the following players will have a major impact on which team advances in the Big Dance.
Seth Curry, G
Senior guard Seth Curry is the unquestioned leader of the Blue Devils’ backcourt. Deep tournament runs start and end with experience at the guard positions and Duke certainly has a good one in Curry.
The 6’2” sharpshooter led the Blue Devils in scoring this season with 17.3 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting from behind the arc. He’s capable of scoring in bunches and Duke’s chances of beating Michigan State begin with a good performance from Curry.
Averaging 21.5 points per game in the tournament, Curry has pulled his weight, especially with forwards Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly in foul trouble Sunday against Creighton.
If the big men can stay on the court, he won’t have to carry the Blue Devils at the offensive end, but that will be a big question mark against a physical Michigan State frontcourt.
Mason Plumlee, F
Duke’s second-leading scorer this season, the 6’10” Plumlee picked up the slack in the Blue Devils’ frontcourt with Kelly on the shelf. With his running mate back in action, Plumlee has flourished due to several mismatches in the paint.
In the second round against Albany, Plumlee posted 23 points and eight rebounds in an impressive effort at both ends of the floor. Paired with Curry’s 26 points, the Great Danes didn’t have an answer to Duke’s balanced attack.
Michigan State isn’t Albany. The Spartans play a physical game in the paint, led by a couple of bruising big men, and they match up well with Plumlee and Kelly.
Guard play may be the deciding factor in this contest, but Duke has to set the tone below the hoop. If Plumlee can’t bang with Michigan State’s big men, it will be a long day for the Blue Devils.
Derrick Nix, C
Senior center Derrick Nix didn’t steal the headlines in the regular season, but he’s had a solid year for the Spartans. Averaging 10 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, the 6’9”, 270-pound big man has contributed enough at the offensive end to match his physical presence on defense.
Nix has hit another gear in the tournament, though. In Michigan State’s first two contests, Nix has averaged 18 points and 11.5 per game, including a 23-point, 15-rebound performance against Valparaiso in the second round.
The center has played tremendously in the tournament and he’ll be the key to a Michigan State win on Friday. Neutralizing Duke’s pair of talented forwards will come down to a physical performance from both he and Adreian Payne.
Gary Harris, G
Freshman guard Gary Harris hasn’t wilted under the bright lights of the Big Dance. The Spartans’ second-leading scorer has averaged 16.5 points per game in the tournament, including a 23-point effort against Memphis in the third round.
With plenty of length (6’4”) and a deadly three-point stroke (41.9 percent in the regular season), Harris will be instrumental at both ends of the floor. Michigan State will have to keep pace with an explosive Duke offense, but it will also have to defend some excellent three-point shooters.
There isn’t a facet of this matchup that won’t provide an interesting storyline and tremendously entertaining game. These teams match up extremely well and each squad’s key players will have to step up to ensure a victory on Friday.
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