by John Fanta
The best player in the sport right now. Coaching legends who have combined for 19 Final Four appearances. Two big name brands that define winning.
It’s Duke and Michigan State in Our Nation’s Capital on Sunday evening for a Final Four spot, and if the game is anything like the hype, this is the perfect fit for the second weekend finale of the NCAA Tournament.
“This is why you come to college – to play in a game like this,” said Zion Williamson.
The Duke freshman has the sports world in the palm of his hands, and is all smiles while doing it. Everybody’s wondering what’s in store for his fourth act on the Big Dance floor, after the top NBA Draft prospect put up 23 points and six boards — playing all 40 minutes nonetheless — in Friday’s Sweet 16 win over Virginia Tech.
Michigan State counters with its own leader, someone who defies any and all pressure according to his coach and teammates.
“If you’re not ready for this game then there’s something wrong with you,” said Cassius Winston. “It’s the thrill of it, you want to play the best teams, you want to play on the biggest stage and that’s what it’s all about.”
Winston orchestrated a commanding Spartan performance Friday, totaling 17 points with eight dishes in the victory.
Let’s turn to the coaches, who are aiming to take their respective program to its first Final Four since 2015.
Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo will battle for the 13th time Sunday, and the respect they share for each other is mutual. Izzo just wishes one thing would be different – his 1-11 record against Coach K.
“I’d say it’s a good healthy relationship except one hasn’t won as many games against the other and I hope to find a way to change that,” said Izzo, who holds a 51-20 career record in the NCAA Tournament. ““I respect people that do it the right way and that have again found this consistency over, man, it’s been 30 years or maybe more.”
“We’re both in it for the love of the game and love for kids,” said Krzyzewski when asked about his relationship with Izzo. “He’s (Izzo’s) never changed. He’s a genuine guy. He’s been great for Michigan State, but for college basketball (as well).”
What will this heavyweight clash come down to? Here are three keys to keep an eye on:
- Physicality. Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward are just two of Michigan State’s big bodies inside which the Spartans can employ on Duke. Don’t expect Sparty to just pack it in with multiple bodies on the Blue Devils. Izzo’s team, and program for that matter, hinge on physicality and rebounding. It’s what led MSU to outrebounding LSU 21-10 in the first half of Friday night’s win. Because of Sparty’s level of physicality, they can match what Duke does behind Williamson and RJ Barrett. It also means that Tre Jones won’t have nobody around him when he catches the ball beyond the arc. Expect the Spartans to not throw too much help defense on Duke and guard them straight up, because Michigan State is fully capable of it.
- Tre Jones vs. Cassius Winston. Winston is the steady hand for the Spartans. Jones is who Krzyzewski calls the team’s “godsend,” the one who sets the tone defensively and is the key variable on offense. Jones’ jumper has been Jekyll and Hyde in the last two games. After shooting just 1-for-8 from beyond the arc in Sunday’s one-point win over UCF, Jones went 5-for-7 from three-point range and tallied 22 points to go with eight assists in a brilliant performance against Virginia Tech. It will be a must-see as to how Jones does defensively against Winston. As the junior point guard goes, Michigan State goes.
- Cam Reddish’s Status: Duke needs all the length they can get to match up with the Spartans, and if Reddish were to not be at 100 percent or miss the game, that’s a crucial blow especially in this match-up. Krzyzewski ruled the 6-foot-8 freshman “a game-time decision” for Sunday’s game, citing a knee injury suffered in Thursday’s practice. The good news for Reddish? There is no structural damage, so if he misses Sunday and Duke wins, one could expect him back in Minneapolis.
Quote of the Day: “He’s not Superman, but he’s damn close,” said Izzo of Zion. The Spartans head coach compared the Duke phenom to….Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack. Maybe Jon Gruden will give Williamson a call.
Story of the Day – Izzo on his relationship with Krzyzewski: “(We) got real close a couple years ago when my son was picking teams. And he picked Duke. And I disowned my son for a year or two. But I remember when Duke beat us that year. Coach K had made the statement that he’s always got a scholarship at Duke. Well, now he’s graduating from high school. So he is going to be short some money because I think I’m going to get Steven to go there.”
It’s almost wild that this game is ONLY in the Elite Eight. If it’s anything like Saturday’s contests, featuring an instant classic between Virginia and Purdue, then everyone is in for a treat on Sunday.
Duke and Sparty. Krzyzewski and Izzo. For a Final Four slot? Buckle up.