Duke finds toughness inside Izzone
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Wait a minute, just need to check this dateline.
This game was played in East Lansing, right?
This was the home of the supposedly tougher Michigan State Spartans, the team that is known to have more of an inside presence that Duke, right?
Well, something happened to the Blue Devils on the flight home from the last great frontier in Alaska. By the time it arrived in Michigan, Duke had determined in a few days in Durham that it could play from the inside-out as much as the outside-in during its quest to get to San Antonio.
Duke's dominance in every facet of Wednesday's 72-50 victory over Michigan State (this was the marquee ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, right?) sent Spartans coach Tom Izzo to his lowest point during his nine years as a head coach in East Lansing.
And it helped transform the Blue Devils into an offensive machine.
Ironic as it was to watch Wednesday night, Duke's much-maligned inside game was one of many differences that separated the two teams ranked No. 6 in this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. Now, all Duke has to do is duplicate this inside-out output on a regular basis to live up to even loftier expectations.
Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph combined to score 27 points and grab 15 rebounds. They have done yeoman's work in previous games this season, combining for 22 points in the Great Alaska Shootout title-game loss to Purdue. The pair also contributed 17 against Liberty, 24 against Pacific and 13 against Detroit.
But in none of those games was the offense as fluid as it was against the Spartans.
"We had a lot of different visions," Duke senior point guard Chris Duhon said of the Blue Devils' offense. "At first we wanted to be a run-and-gun team that scored a lot of fast break points and took a lot of 3-point shots. That didn't work and coach (Mike Krzyzewski) did a great job of adjusting. This might be our new identity."
And what exactly does that mean for those ACC teams who won seven of nine games over the past three nights?
"We're very physical and we focus on every offensive possession," Duhon said. "We're going to be selective and we're going to play tremendous defense for 40 minutes."
Duke forced Michigan State into 20 turnovers. But it was those 46 points in the paint to the Spartans' 32 that were just as much of a decisive number.
Krzyzewski put J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing on the bench to start the game because the pair was in a major slump. Redick entered the game having made just 5 of 22 shots from behind the 3-point arc, while Ewing was just a bit better at 9-for-23.
Instead, Krzyzewski put Randolph in the lineup next to Williams. Sean Dockery got the token start in the backcourt. But once the Blue Devils started getting in a rhythm offensively, he wasn't going to dump the idea. And why should he? Williams said he felt comfortable playing next to Randolph. The pair had practiced in the same lineup back in Durham the past week.
And, come game time, the duo worked in tandem perfectly.
"If me and Shelden are clicking on offense, it will be very effective," Randolph said. "It will be hard for any defense to stop us considering we have the best perimeter offense, or one of the best perimeter offenses."
Duke valued the possessions Wednesday. And Williams and Randolph didn't waste their attempts. Williams made 7 of 8, Randolph 5 of 7. The pair reduced the Spartans' inside game to mush. Heralded Paul Davis was 3 of 8 and took a seat next to Izzo for a spell in the second half. Simply getting shots up in the paint was a chore for the Spartans, as Williams blocked five shots and Randolph swatted another.
"This will take the pressure off of us to score 20 points," Redick said of the inside production. Redick isn't officially out of his slump, but he can see progress, making 3 of 9 3s in scoring 17 points. "It's no mistake that I haven't been shooting the ball well," he said. "I had no problem with coach not starting me. I deserved it."
Duke traditionally has run four perimeter players with one man inside. But look for that trend to shift as the season moves into December and then conference play. The Blue Devils could be more effective with three shooters and two bangers, or when Coach K chooses to go with his four-and-one lineup, one of the four could be 6-8 freshman Luol Deng next to Williams or Randolph. The combinations suddenly at Coach K's disposal make Duke even tougher to matchup against inside, or outside.
"We have the versatility to do a couple of different things with the big lineup," said Duke's big man coach, assistant Steve Wojciechowski. "When Luol is in there, we can exploit that matchup too. We'll go with who ever is being effective."
The timing of this win and the way it went about winning couldn't have come at a better time for Duke. The Blue Devils were smarting from the loss to Purdue late Saturday night in Anchorage. They were tossed around by the Boilermakers and were clearly the less-physical team. There was no reason to think the roles would be any different in East Lansing.
Duke also hadn't played a true road game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and was ripe to be rattled by the Izzone. But, as assistant Chris Collins pointed out, the Blue Devils hadn't played a true home game, either, always going to neutral sites.
"We needed this win," Duhon said. "We hadn't found ourselves yet."
Michigan State would like a similar road map.
"These are the same guys as last year," Izzo said. "The same guys that got to the Elite Eight."
Izzo said more, quite a bit more, admitting that he had longed to get Duke in this building. He said this was one of the games he had waited for but, "I guess you better watch what you wish for."
Izzo said the Spartans played scared and were, gulp, a soft team. They have now been humbled twice on national television in their two biggest games (at Kansas and home Duke). There are plenty more marquee matchups to come, starting with Oklahoma on Saturday and then Kentucky in Ford Field -- in front of an expected 75,000 fans. And, right now, Michigan State doesn't have a point guard, are power-forward challenged, and quite frankly, simply a mess.
Izzo was planning on watching the tape of Wednesday's game late into the night. While watching Duke, he might actually see Michigan State. And when he sees those Blue Devils playing more like the Spartans, it might give him nightmares ... in his house.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.