Take a look back at the Michigan State Spartans' season, and you'll see that the writing was on the wall. They were a good team capable of overachieving to an extent but by no means were a shoo-in for the Final Four or a national championship appearance.
And so it happened, the Spartans ran into a well-rounded and underestimated Duke team Friday night and bowed out of March Madness after a 71-61 loss to the Blue Devils in Indianapolis.
The loss highlighted the inconsistencies that the Spartans showed all year long. The loss, although it could have been avoided with more disciplined play, showed that the Spartans ended their year right where they should have. Duke was the first legitimate threat that Michigan State faced in the NCAA Tournament, and it showed.
Weaknesses were exposed, and Seth Curry went on a memorable rampage that ranks right up there with other fantastic March Madness exploits, scoring a game-high 29 points. He couldn't miss from long range, knocking down 6-of-9 from beyond the arc, and the Blue Devils benefited from a respectable coaching performance from Mike Krzyzewski, who has absolutely owns the Spartans with a 7-1 record (3-1 in March).
After struggling to really separate from Valparaiso during their 65-54 opening-round victory, the Spartans faced similar challenges in the Round of 32 versus Memphis. Don't let the 70-48 victory fool you, the game with the Tigers wasn't so lopsided. A late run vaulted Michigan State past them. It was hardly a route, although the score certainly suggest that it was.
The Spartans faithful wanted to believe that this team was Final Four bound. After all, lesser teams coached by Tom Izzo made it there. This year, some said, would be no different; however, an honest look at Michigan State's deficiencies made it clear that running to the Elite 8 would have been the best-case scenario.
In Hindsight, Loss to Miami Should Have Served as Warning for MSU
Remember the Spartans' 67-59 loss to Miami on Nov. 28?
The Hurricanes, at the time, weren't a team to be feared. That was the popular thought, but look what happened: Miami ended up as a national contender, if even for a brief moment.
Michigan State's performance against the would-be ACC champions was similar to the offering it gave against Duke.
Miami is a high-tempo team, just like Duke. The Hurricanes, also like Duke, shoot the ball well from the perimeter. The Spartans have had trouble defending the three-point shot all season, and the Hurricanes shot a dazzling 56 percent from beyond the arc. Trey McKinney Jones shot 5-for-7. He, like Curry was Friday, was a difference-maker.
While Duke didn't shoot as well—about 39 percent—as Miami did in November against Michigan State, it moved the ball to its hot hand.
Curry did the rest and dismantled the Spartans defense.
Banking on a Freshman Wasn't Best Policy
Gary Harris was the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year.
He's undoubtedly a competitor and will have an excellent career at Michigan State should he choose to stay for at least another year. He could make the leap to the NBA, but that wouldn't be the wisest choice for him at the moment.
Despite battling a bum shoulder, Harris proved that he's not ready for the Association just yet. The frosh was exposed by Curry on Friday night. Harris has to improve his overall game against experienced players like Curry, a senior.
"He's a great player," Harris said in reference to Curry (via WXYZ.com's Tom Leyden). "He had a great game, did a great job getting open, hit a lot of great shots and had a phenomenal game."
Harris is tremendous athlete and likely learned a valuable lesson or two when facing off with a skilled shooter like Curry. His 23-point outburst against Memphis gave Spartans followers reason to believe that he'd be a hero in March.
That pressure, perhaps, was too much to put on the shoulders of a first-year guard.
Remember, he ran high school courts in Indiana just over a year ago. Shutting down a perennial power during the Sweet 16 is a hefty undertaking for anyone, let alone a freshman.
Harris played like a veteran for most of the year, but his 2-for-11 night (six points) against Duke threw up a few red flags. He needs more time in college and isn't quite ready to carry the Spartans. He'll grow. He'll develop. He'll be ready for next year.
Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne Weren't on Their A-Game Versus Duke
Nix, a senior, had issues when it came to getting started Friday night. He finished with just nine points and was far from the physically imposing monster that he's been for most of his career with the Spartans.
The former Detroit Pershing star had the responsibility of setting the tone, but he didn't deliver, evidenced by his lackluster 3-of-10 shooting performance.
Without Nix at full speed, the Spartans stalled, their offense struggled, forcing them to play Duke's style—a run-and-shoot approach—and follow the pace of the game rather than dictate it.
Had Nix been more assertive in the lane, the Spartans wouldn't have taken 12 shots from 3-point distance (3-for-12). It's that simple. Michigan State isn't a jump-shooting team. Duke is and won because its opponent couldn't match up shot-for-shot.
Payne matched Nix's shooting by going 3-for-10. He hit each of his seven free-throw attempts but was ineffective from the floor. Part of his frustration was due to Duke's Mason Plumlee, but Payne's struggles were largely because he abandoned his traditional mode of operation and strayed away from the basket.
Although he showcased improved range, the Spartans were in trouble from the moment that he started firing up mid-range jumpers. Payne's strength emerges when he's able to play in the paint. Duke didn't allow him to do so for most of Friday night.
Second-Half Woes Haunted Michigan State
It was one of the worst second halves of Spartans basketball in some time. No rhythm. No desire. No results.
Michigan State hung around Duke in the first 20 minutes, entering the break down 32-31, but failed to establish any type of stride in the second half. Duke jumped out to double-digit leads, and it was plain to see with about five minutes to play that the Spartans were out of gas.
A nearly 17-minute field goal drought didn't aid the Spartans, either.
Duke put the finishing touches on a 9-0 run with approximately 13:34 left on the clock. Michigan State followed with a 5-0 spree but didn't have adequate energy to go for the long haul.
Credit should go to Duke for devising an exemplary game plan Friday. Coach Krzyzewski likely understood that his team's best chance of downing Michigan State would come from sharp shooting—which was the case.
The Blue Devils didn't exactly string together a perfect second half nor did they rebound well (lost battle 33-26). However, Duke exploited its strengths and exposed Michigan State's weaknesses.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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