Indianapolis, IN (SportsNetwork.com) - The Michigan State Spartans hope to continue their magical run in the 2015 NCAA Tournament on Saturday evening, as they tangle with the Duke Blue Devils in the first national semifinal-round matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The winner advances to Monday's National Championship game to face either Wisconsin or Kentucky.
Michigan State's road to its ninth Final Four, the seventh under head coach Tom Izzo, has been paved with wins over 10th-seeded Georgia (70-63), No. 2 seed Virginia (60-54), No. 3 seed Oklahoma (62-58) and fourth-seeded Louisville (76-70 OT). The Spartans, the East Region champs as a seven seed, are 63-27 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, are participating in their 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament, 29th overall, and they have a pair of national titles to their credit (1979 and 2000), the most recent of which was won in Indianapolis.
MSU is 27-11 this season, and has won eight of its last nine games heading into this matchup, with the lone setback in that span coming against fellow Big Ten member and Final Four participant Wisconsin in the conference tournament championship game.
As one of three No. 1 seeds remaining in the tournament, Duke has taken down 16th-seeded Robert Morris (85-56), No. 8 seed San Diego State (68-49), fifth- seeded Utah (63-57) and No. 2 seed Gonzaga (66-52) to reach its 12th Final Four under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, which has him tied for the most in NCAA history. The South Region champs have been to 16 Final Fours in all, and they own a 103-34 record all-time in the NCAA Tournament with four national crowns (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010) -- the first and most recent also occurring in Indianapolis.
The Blue Devils are 33-4 on the season, and they are playing about as well as any team remaining, having won 16 of their last 17 games, with the lone loss coming against Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament.
This is the second time this season these two teams will be playing in Indianapolis, as Duke earned an 81-71 win back on Nov. 18, 2014 during the Champions Classic. In that game, MSU got double-digit scoring efforts from three players, but the Blue Devils got the upper hand by putting four players in double figures, led by Quinn Cook with a game-high 19 points. Both teams shot the ball well (MSU at 50 percent, Duke at 54 percent), but Coach K's club used a 20-6 edge in free-throw points to earn the hard-fought victory.
With regard to the all-time series between the teams, Duke leads by a 9-2 margin, with the two doing battle four times in the past five seasons. The Blue Devils prevailed in each of those, and Izzo is just 1-8 in his career against them.
Duke is 3-1 versus Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament, which includes a 68-62 triumph during the 1999 Final Four in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Michigan State has played outstanding team defense in this tournament, holding its four opponents to 34.0 percent field goal efficiency, which includes a paltry 23.7 percent showing beyond the arc. Offensively, the Spartans have been led by Travis Trice, who is averaging roughly 20 points in the tourney, shooting in excess of 40 percent from 3-point range, while converting nearly 90 percent of his foul shots.
Trice (15.3 ppg, 5.1 apg), who hit for 24 points against Oklahoma two days prior, led the Spartans with 17 in the come-from-behind win over Louisville last weekend. Denzel Valentine (14.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.4 apg) tacked on 15 points and combined with Trice to hand out 11 of the team's 20 assists in the game, while Bryn Forbes (8.7 ppg, .435 3-point FG percentage) drained 4-of-6 3-point tries to finish with 14 points for MSU, which averages 71.4 ppg while permitting 63.2 ppg this season. The Cardinals got 28 points from Wayne Blackshear, but made good on just 35.9 percent of their total shots, which included only four treys.
Izzo was asked in Thursday's media session about what it takes to get to the Final Four, and he spoke more about the bond his team shares rather the exploits of any one or two individual players.
"I just think you have to have a close-knit, together team," Izzo said. "We've gotten here maybe once where I didn't feel we were maybe as close. Magic [Johnson] told me something once when I first got to a Final Four, he said, Usually those kind of teams have something special, and it's not just talent, it's a camaraderie, a togetherness, having each other's back. It's hard for kids to adjust to all the pressures that you have when you go to a Final Four, and you better be close-knit, tight-knit."
Duke didn't shoot the ball particularly well in its recent clash with Gonzaga, going just 21-of-56 from the field (.375), but the Blue Devils nailed eight 3- pointers and were nearly perfect at the free-throw line (16-of-19) in earning the 14-point victory. Balance was the key for Duke, as four players scored in double figures, led by Justise Winslow and Matt Jones with 16 points apiece. National Player of the Year candidate Jahlil Okafor tallied nine points and eight rebounds, but shot just 4-of-10 from the floor. Defensively, the Blue Devils forced 13 turnovers, compared to the mere three they committed, while holding the Bulldogs to 2-of-10 success out on the perimeter.
Duke has limited its four NCAA Tournament opponents to 53.5 ppg on 36.8 percent shooting from the field. The Blue Devils themselves, are shooting 50 percent from the floor, which encompasses their 42.9 percent showing beyond the arc. Duke is the only team in the country with three freshmen averaging double figures in the scoring column, as Okafor (17.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Winslow (12.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Tyus Jones (11.6 ppg, 5.7 apg) combine for more than half of the team's robust scoring average of 79.5 ppg. The Blue Devils, who also get significant offensive production from senior Quinn Cook (15.5 ppg, 2.7 apg), yield 64.3 ppg.
As a No. 1 seed and one of the most successful programs in college basketball history, it's certainly not that surprising to see Duke in the Final Four. Still, Krzyzewski was quick to point out that this team was not given a free pass, and is here because of the hard work and dedication the players have put forth.
"I don't know who expected us to be here. We have eight guys and four freshmen. I think at times you expect a program to be here instead of looking at a team and saying, Boy, they should be here. Our guys deserve to be here, just like Tom's kids. They deserve it because they've earned it. It's not about what either of us have done in the past with our teams, it's about what we're doing with this group, and to give their team, make sure they have their moment. He and I have talked about this a lot over the years. It's about being in the kids' moment, not being in our moment."