::ahem:: BEAT DUKE.
Happy NCAA Tournament! At this point we’re halfway through the Sweet Sixteen, with MSU set to take on Duke tonight, so we figured we’d give a little first two rounds (suck it “first four”) boat update and look at MSU’s matchups with Duke.
First, the boat!
Captain: Adreian Payne Actually, I mean…NO, Payne you are the worst. (Please God, don’t leave us). It was clear through the first two rounds of the tournament, which included some bouts of MSU-patented slop, that Payne’s energy and athleticism is what lifts this MSU team to another level.
He has continued his extremely strong development, racking up dunks, blocks and rebounds and still shooting jump shots well. Payne is the glue of this team, and it’s very exciting, as he’s always been a favorite of ours at Sports Squared.
First mate: Gary Harris Obviously. Gar notched a career-high 23 points against Memphis and has continued to prove that it’s a Gary Harris world and we all just live in it. In addition to his sweet 3-point shooting, Gar has continued to play excellent aggressive defense and show great flashes of his NBA-caliber talent by driving to the basket. (ALSO please don’t leave us Gar, we love you).
Second mate (aka co-captains of towel fighting): Derrick Nix and Keith Appling Both Appling and Nix have shown a lot of guts through the first two rounds, though neither has exactly set the world on fire offensively. Nix has continued to be a solid rebounder and consistent scorer, while Appling has rediscovered his shot and lead from the floor. MSU needs both to continue their leadership and solid play if the Spartans want to make another Final Four run.
Freshman Crow’s Nest: Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello Valentine continues to stuff the stat sheet in the all the ways that matter, racking up nine points, six boards, six assists and only one turnover against Memphis. He logged valuable minutes for MSU when Appling went out with his shoulder injury and proved that he’ll be a valuable part of the team’s post season. Matt Costello brought his own blocks and great defense to Memphis’s alleged “block party” and his awareness around the basket and overall skill for the game makes me really excited for what we’ll see from him in the future.
Bo’sun: Branden Dawson There’s been a lot of debate about Dawson, who’s seen a reduced offensive output in recent weeks. But in both tournament games so far, he’s shown that he’s engaged, meaning he’s playing excellent defense and racking up rebounds and steals. BJ, we don’t care if you don’t score 20 pts a game, but keep doing what you’re doing.
CAPTAIN’S COMMENDATION: Russel Byrd scored an actual game-time basket, y’all! RUSSEL we all want so badly for you to succeed. Keep on keepin’ on, you ginger fool.
As for tonight’s matchup against Duke, I’ve been up and down all week. Yesterday I was convinced we would lose, because after last year’s Louisville heartbreak, I wanted to prepare myself. Today I’m reminding myself of all the epic gauntlets Tom Izzo has faced before (Kansas>Louisville>UConn in 2009, Duke & Kentucky back-to-back in 2005).
The key to this game for the Spartans is their defense. If they can keep Ryan Kelley, Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee in check, the Spartans should win. All of those matchups (Payne, Harris and Nix, respectively) have the potential to go in MSU’s favor. It will also be interesting to see how Duke deals with Brandon Dawson, who’s an athlete they don’t necessarily have an answer for.
Thinking back to last year’s game against Duke, where MSU gave the Blue Devils a run for their money (the final score was 74-69), it’s clear MSU’s personnel has improved in a lot of ways. The loss of Draymond Green hurts, but is greatly alleviated by Payne’s development at the 4. Replace Brandon Wood with Gary Harris. MSU also has a much-improved sophomore Travis Trice and Brandon Dawson (both of whom were playing in only their fourth college game last year). Nix’s improvement at the should also benefit MSU’s ability to match up with Plumlee. All of that being said, March is March, and things mysteriously happen. (Please see Ohio State’s back-to-back buzzer beaters and Indiana’s baffling loss to Syracuse last night.) This is a game MSU can and should win, and the kind of game a team has to win if it hopes to win a national title.