Thoughts From The Champions Classic: MSU vs DUKE

Duke is a force to be reckoned with.

Michigan State is Michigan State.

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Tuesday night’s Championship Classic in Indianapolis was an early season measuring stick for four marquee college hoops programs in the nation.  Duke outlasted Michigan State in the first game, and then Kentucky dismantled Kansas in the nightcap. We learned some important things about each team, but we also have to keep in mind that these teams (especially Kansas and Kentucky) will look vastly different in March. I’ll cover UK and KU at some point soon.


–  Michigan State is not as talented as last year’s squad, but they’ll be right back in the B1G mix.  The Spartans have no one to replace Adrien Payne this year.  Junior Matt Costello and Sophomore Gavin Schilling split time at PF against Duke, but it’s clear that neither player can provide the type of dynamic stretch-4 offensive presence that Payne gave Sparty last season.  Costello hit a couple mid-range shots and gave a solid defensive effort against the best young center in the country (Jahlil Okafor), but MSU is clearly lacking in the Bigs department.

– That being said, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Last year, Payne realized early on that he was a first round pick, and he seemed concerned with improving this draft status (not that I can blame him).  He was very confident in his improved offensive game and conditioning, which resulted in him chucking a lot of shots from spots on the court that Tom Izzo would prefer not to see his starting center. The Spartans started last season off hot. They were ranked high, largely because of Payne, and he was feeling himself.  I love Payne’s game, but he took the idea of being a stretch-4 too far too quick, took bad shots, and robbed his teammates of possessions.  Not surprisingly, when Payne went cold in the middle of the year, Sparty struggled and although they played well down the stretch, they ended up losing to UCONN in the Elite 8.

– This season the rest of the crew, primarily SF Branden Dawson and PG Travis Trice, will flourish with more offensive responsibility. Both are excellent defenders, Trice proved to be a solid point guard last season, and Dawson is a pure athletic specimen who Izzo needs to put it all together. So far Trice has played the best ball for MSU, averaging 25ppg and 5apg through two games.  On Tuesday he was the more polished, veteran guard compared to Duke’s freshman Tyus Jones. Dawson, meanwhile, still needs to take the next step.  He’s a senior who has been an important contributor for three years, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his offensive game.  If Dawson can play more aggressive offense and Trice continues his ascent to becoming an All-B1G point guard, MSU will have a chance to win the B1G and make a run in the tourney. Just another year in East Lansing, really.  I don’t see them making it past the Sweet 16, but that’s no small feat.  Without a reliable big man, Dawson can’t afford to play passive offense or the Spartans will struggle.

– Take everything I just said about Michigan State and the opposite is true about the Duke Blue Devils. Duke looked fantastic for most of the game against Sparty, and it all starts with the rookie big man Jahlil Okafor.  The 6’11 270lb center from Chicago was named a preseason All-American and so far he has not disappointed.  Through 3 games, Okafor is averaging 18ppg and 7.5rpg.  He’s a HUGE body in the paint, seemingly more of an “old school” big man.  Okafor is no Anthony Davis, Nerleans Noel, or DeAndre Jordan.  Those guys can fly around blocking shots all they want, but at age 19, Okafor would toss any one of them on their respective ass.  He’s the type of big man who seems so thick that he can’t be moved, yet he can run the floor and has great touch offensively. The ball seems so small in his hands that it’s like playing with a Nerf ball in your basement.  Anytime Okafor was around the paint he found a way to kiss it off the glass with the precision of the 38-year old bald guy hustling games at the local Y. He’s got old man game and I mean that in the best way.  His upside isn’t as high as, say, Anthony Davis’ was, but Okafor will dominate the college ranks this season and be a top-3 draft pick. Guaranteed.

– Duke’s starting five can run with any team in the country, but depth could be the death of the Blue Devils.  Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson are proven commodities in the ACC.  Cook is a responsible, tough defender at guard.  He won’t make many mistakes (this is key with such a young team) and he will drain open shots.  Expect Jefferson to flourish playing next to Okafor.  Jahlil is going to be the focus for opposing defenses every single game.  There’s really not much that most teams can do against a player of his caliber but he will undoubtedly draw tons of double teams and extra attention, leaving space for Jefferson to go to work.  AJ has a solid mid-range game, so he’ll play well in the high-low combo, and he’s an athletic PF who rebounds well and can pass effectively. Perfect combo for Coach K.

– Rounding out the starting five are freshmen Tyus Jones (point guard) and Justise Winslow (small forward).  Jones was a top PG recruit who has looked very solid so far.  He had 17 and 4 against the veteran backcourt of MSU.  Jones should be a top PG in the ACC. I’m looking forward to seeing him go against Marcus Paige (UNC) and Angel Rodriguez (Miami).  As for Winslow, I’ll admit right now, I really hadn’t heard of this kid.  I’m a Chicago guy so I knew all about Okafor and his AAU buddy Jones, and, sure, I’ve heard Winslow’s name, but I hadn’t done much research.  Well, friends, I’m a fucking fool.  Winslow was my favorite part of this game.  He is an absolute STUD who is still figuring out his game.  I just hope that he stays at Duke for two years so he can be the feature on offense next season.  Besides one of the best names in sports, Justise Winslow has some serious game. He’s a 6’6 SF who seems to glide around the court effortlessly and out-jumps everyone in his vicinity. Coach K has gushed about his offensive game, and for good reason. Winslow is currently averaging 16.5ppg, but it’s a real quiet 16.5. You can tell that he’s still feeling out the offense, looking to make the “right” decisions, and sometimes deferring to teammates when he has an open look.  But every few plays he just seemed to say “screw it, this dude can’t guard me,” and he was right.  This usually resulted in a Spartan defender getting badly shook and and open mid-range jumper or drive to the hole by Winslow.  He’s a big guard in a small forward’s body, reminds me a lot of Rudy Gay at UCONN.  I’m a 25-year old man, I’m really too excited about this kid.

– Duke’s longterm success this season might hinge on the play of their bench.  In Tuesday’s nightcap, we saw Kentucky running shifts of five subs at a time.  The Wildcats go ten players deep, and all those guys would have a spot on any team in the country. This is a luxury that Coach K does not have.  Matt Jones and Rasheed Sulaimon should both contribute heavily this season, but that will really hinge on the play of Cook, Tyus Jones, and Winslow.  If those guys are humming, there won’t be much need for either of them, other than for spells of rest and as change-of-pace guards. Sulaimon has the biggest upside off the bench. He’s as athletically gifted as any Blue Devil, and he can stroke the three, but it seems like every year he regresses (in terms of confidence and playing time).  Duke needs that to change this season. The most important player on Duke’s bench is probably Marshall Plumlee aka Stephen Baldwin.  At some point(s) this season, Okafor will get into foul trouble, or get hurt, or decide he’s ready to challenge the NBA’s one-year early entry policy, and Brother Number Three will hear his number called.  At 7’0 255lbs, Plumlee has elite size, but he’s never passed the “eye test.”  It’s pretty evident that the youngest Plumlee is a Dukie out of respect for the family, but he can still be a formidable backup center.  If Plumlee plays tough defense and can pick up even some of the offensive slack when Okafor is on the bench, the Blue Devils will be in business.

UK vs KU breakdown to come soon (Spoiler: Kentucky is INSANE)


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