After the Blue Devils blew MSU away 72-50 at the Breslin Center, it took the Spartans a while to regain their confidence. Couple that with the most brutal out of conference slate in recent memory and the result was a group of Spartans under .500 entering Big 10 conference play.
Still, that group managed a second place finish and a 12-4 record, earning an NCAA bid that ended in the first round. This year Izzo returns all five starters, as well as adding some quality depth inside, and a true point guard – something that was severely lacking last season. The result has been a high powered offense that is averaging 103 points per game through three contests n nearly 53% shooting from the field.
Meanwhile the Blue Devils enter the ACC/Big10 Challenge having never lost in the event's five year history. To keep that perfect streak alive, Coach K's troops will need another big defensive effort, while hoping the offense develops more of a cohesive flow.
Meet the Spartans
Through three games Izzo hasn't been shy about going to his bench. The Spartan coach has ten players averaging double figure minutes, with no one player seeing more than 23.3 minutes per contest. That balance in playing time has yielded six players who average more than 10 points per game.
G- Chris Hill (6'3, 190): Last year the role of pure point guard fell to Hill, who struggled to make the conversion from shooting guard early on before finding his rhythm midway through the season. Offensively he's dangerous, but still has trouble against high intensity on the ball defenders.
After connecting for 14 points and four assists a year ago, Hill has settled into the role of running the high powered Spartan offense. He's scoring just 10 points per game, but has upped his assist total to five per contest, and is taking much better care of the ball with a 3.5/1 assist to turnover ratio.
Still, he's yet to face the kind of defensive intensity that Duke will bring, especially if the Blue Devils elect to start junior point guard Sean Dockery for a second straight game. Last year Dockery proved to be the spark an ailing Blue Devil team needed in East Lansing, and has worked hard to improve his offensive game in the off season. If he can once again frustrate Hill without picking up early foul trouble, it could be like throwing sawdust into the Spartan offensive engine.
G- Shannon Brown (6'3, 200): Before he committed to Michigan State in 2002, the Blue Devils made a late push to get in with Brown after he began torching a number of opponents on the summer AAU scene. That high octane scoring ability has begun to translate to the college game, as Brown began to emerge as the Spartans' go to guy late last season.
This year he's continued to improve in the early going. In just 22 minutes per game he's averaging 16 points, four rebounds, and two steals while shooting 55% from the field and 50% from the perimeter. A slasher by nature, Brown can make his nightly living getting to the hoop, or drawing fouls where he converts 83% of the time at the line. Then there's his improved perimeter shot, which he'll knock down with relative ease if left open, and will still hit even if covered at times.
The question the Blue Devils must answer is which guard will start out checking Brown. The most likely candidate is J.J. Redick, who has improved his overall game including his defensive abilities. With improved footwork and speed thanks to losing 15 pounds in the off season, Redick has become an above average defender, and while he's still able to be beaten off the dribble, he's learned that if he drives his opponent toward the middle, it usually makes for easy help from one of the two big guys inside. Offensively Redick's jumper is still MIA, but the same was true last year before he found his stroke midway through the season.
G- Maurice Ager 6'4, 195): Ager comes into his junior season as the team's best overall athlete. Possessing a vertical jump over 40", he's earned high praise and comparisons to former Spartan sky walked Jason Richardson.
This season Ager has put all his athleticism to good use and has become very aggressive on the offensive end to the tune of 17 points per game in just 23 minutes while hitting 52% of his field goal attempts including 53% from the perimeter. His huge vertical allows him to get his shot off anywhere, and improved shot mechanics have translated into the Spartans' most deadly scorer. He's also a terrific rebounding guard, recording just under seven boards per game.
Matching up with Ager to start will likely be Daniel Ewing, who has split his time between point and shooting guard this season with some success. A capable ball handler, Ewing is also Duke's second best on the ball defender in the open floor, and will likely split time with Dockery checking Ager and Hill. In addition to his defensive responsibilities, Ewing will handle the ball and look to run the Duke offense while also creating his own offense, which he's done well so far to the tune of 19 points per game.
F- Alan Anderson (6'6, 220): Anderson's versatility helped him fill a number of roles throughout his career, including a stint as the primary point guard on last year's roster where he truly struggled. This year he's being asked to step in as an undersized power forward, but his quickness and tenacity have translated into early success, albeit against teams without real inside threats.
In the first three games he's scoring from all over the floor (14 points per game) and is helping out on the boards more than normal (career high 6 rebounds per game), but again he's yet to face an opponent who could be considered a legitimate threat to him. That will change against Duke.
The Blue Devils will send 6'11, 240 pound Shavlik Randolph against Anderson and both players will be facing stiff challenges in the match up. Anderson's quickness and athletic ability will give him the chance to take Randolph to the perimeter and set up attempts and driving and slashing, while Anderson will give up five inches of height and several inches of wing span. On top of that Randolph is comfortable stepping out to the perimeter on both sides of the ball. The key for Shavlik will be to avoid reach in fouls and other cheap whistles.
Offensively Randolph should have some success inside provided he goes to the basket strong and with purpose.
C- Paul Davis: (6'11, 250): After a sophomore campaign that resulted in an All-Big 10 selection, Davis has continued to motor through opponents at a steady pace. With his teammates helping shoulder the load on the backboards, his rebounding has suffered (just 6.7 per night), and he's yet to really have a dominant game this year despite some relatively light weight opponents.
Against Duke, Davis will have his hands full with 6'9, 255 pound Shelden Williams on both ends of the floor. Like Williams, Davis has a history of foul problems, which will be a key component to which ever team comes away with the win Tuesday. While Michigan State's depth allows them to run and run, Duke would like to operate in a fast paced, yet controlled half court game with Williams being established inside. If he is on the bench, Davis will be free to operate, while also allowing the Spartans a huge relief driving to the basket.
Meanwhile Williams will look to go the rim hard early on in hopes Davis will once again get into foul trouble. Without him on the floor the Spartans become nearly 100% reliant on the perimeter, which can be a problem if the Blue Devils' high level of on the ball defense shows itself.
Bench (Kelvin Torbert 6'4, 215; Drew Neitzel 6'0, 170; Delco Rowley 6'8, 250; Tim Bograkos 6'2, 195; Drew Naymick 6'10, 235): The rotation of 10 deep has served Michigan State well in the early going, but the rotation is likely to be shortened against Duke.
Torbert has finally begun to live up to the hype surrounding him four long years ago. The team's leading scorer as the sixth man, he's assumed the role of Morris Peterson – instant offensive prowess off the bench. A tremendous athlete and slashing wing, Torbert is quick enough to go around bigger defenders and strong enough to go through smaller ones. Meanwhile freshman Drew Neitzel is the team's lone true point guard. He's made an early successful transition to the college game, and could be called on to handle the ball early if the Blue Devils get after it on defense. Not an offensive threat yet in college, he did average close to 35 points in high school and can light it up if given the chance. Still, how many freshmen have made huge impacts in Cameron. That's a question that will have to be answered. Rowley and Naymick provide Izzo with big options that can occasionally score and rebound inside in relief of Davis.
Meanwhile the Blue Devils will rotate freshmen DeMarcus Nelson and David McClure on the wings. Nelson has struggled to adapt offensively after missing over a week of early season practice time, and then being forced to wear a brace that prevents him from really gripping the ball on the offensive end. Still he is the team's best athlete and is capable of providing instant offense when given the chance. Meanwhile McClure has started two of three games this year and has proven to be a capable defender inside and out. In the post Duke rotates former Green Bay wideout Reggie Love and former walk-on Patrick Johnson. Both can provide size while Love has shown the ability to rebound and score garbage buckets when needed.
This game has many different story lines, all of which could play the most important role in determining the outcome. For Duke to have success on Tuesday, Williams and Randolph must be able to stay on the floor and be effective at both ends. If Duke starts the game working inside and then moves out to the perimeter, it'll slow the MSU offense and will cause problems with fouls on the interior. Defensively Duke needs to recreate the intensity that led to so many Spartan turnovers a year ago. This year the Blue Devils will be at home with the Crazies backing them, so it should get the adrenaline pumping.
The two big guys will also need help from the guards and wings rebounding as Michigan State will send five players to every shot attempt. Players like Redick, Nelson, McClure, and Ewing will need to crash the boards hard and take the kind of physical punishment the Spartans are known to dish out.
Despite their high intensity offense, Michigan State has yet to face a test like Duke. The same can be said of the Blue Devils, though Davidson did provide a good battle for most of the game. In the end this will come down to fouls and Duke's discipline on the offensive end. If they can establish the inside game offensively, it'll open things up later in the game.
Michigan State- 76