Duke better bring its lunch pails and hard hats to Friday night’s matchup with Michigan State in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Midwest regional in Washington, D.C.
In a town where lobbying, negotiating and posturing are at a premium, this battle may be better suited for the rust belt, or perhaps a back alley in some northeastern city.
Third-seed Michigan State (27-8) thrives on mucking things up — with a twist of finesse, of course. Tom Izzo hasn’t become one of the best coaches of this era by simply having his team bang bodies in the paint and slow opponents on the perimeter, though that is sometimes the byproduct of the Spartans’ play.
The No. 2 seed, Duke (29-5) will have to match that intensity to a degree to navigate its way to the Elite Eight, as treacherous a proposition as that may be.
“We’ve played them a couple of times since I’ve been here, and it will be a battle,” Duke senior center Mason Plumlee said, smiling.
Duke beat Michigan State 84-79 early in Plumlee’s sophomore season and 74-69 last season. Those were battles for sure. A whopping 91 fouls were called in the two games, 54 on the Spartans.
These Blue Devils aren’t exactly the nastiest group Mike Krzyzewski has put together. Other than the 6-foot-11 Plumlee, there isn’t another player considered a physical player that will get into the game for the Devils, though point guard Quinn Cook continues making strides in that department. Junior forward Josh Hairston will bang a little, but he’s just not very effective. Freshman forward Amile Jefferson absorbs contact well, but with just 195 pounds supporting his 6-foot-8 frame, he can only bang so much.
That leaves senior forward Ryan Kelly.
A true stretch-four if there ever was one, Kelly has never been known for his physicality. And with a foot injury that kept him out of 13 games that could still be bothering him, it’s doubtful he’s going to dive into the middle of any scrums. It just wouldn’t be wise.
But collectively, Duke understands the challenge.
“(The) Spartans are a great team, they are led by a great coach Tom Izzo,” freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. “They have a tremendous amount of talent as well.”
Izzo’s team is no stranger to this setting. This is the 12th team Izzo has led to the Sweet 16. He has a national championship and six Final Four appearances as well.
And that is why Kelly’s recent struggles are another issue altogether.
To suggest he’s in a slump would be like saying ice glaciers are cold. His 36-point game versus Miami upon returning from the injury niched him a corner in Duke’s vast platform of legendary achievements, but midway through the following game, an 18-point effort against Virginia Tech, Kelly has been as ineffective as he was productive the night he came back.
By the midpoint of the victory over the Hokies on Senior Night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Kelly was shooting 56 percent from the floor for the season and 53.9 percent from 3-point range. Since, however, he’s 8-for-33 (24.2 percent) from the field and 0-13 from beyond the arc.
Yet, even if Kelly isn’t scoring his value is significant to the Blue Devils. Krzyzewski isn’t showing any public concern over Kelly’s scoring issues.
“He’s just a very smart basketball player. We’re just a better team (with him),” the legendary coach said. “To me, it’s so good that we won and he scored one point and he knows he played a heck of a game. That’s maturity also, because when that ball’s not going in it can affect you on the other end of the court and that never did that for Ryan.”
Kelly’s defense, communication and skilled intangibles are nice, but one point without instilling a brute-like impact on the game may not cut it against Michigan State.