Schabath: Spartans’ win over Duke came down to coaching and experience

Brendan Schabath, Men's Basketball Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — The No. 8 Michigan State Spartans earned their first-ever win at Cameron Indoor Stadium, beating the No. 6 Duke Blue Devils Tuesday night. The Spartans won by an impressive final of 75-69, although the majority of the game was not that close. Duke is a great basketball team and coach Mike Krzyzewski is the greatest college basketball coach of all-time, but Tuesday night, Michigan State and Tom Izzo were flat-out better. 

Duke, led by freshman center Jalen Johnson, started the game hot and jumped out to a quick lead over the Spartans. Aaron Henry and Rocket Watts were forcing bad shots, Joey Hauser and Gabe Brown were missing open 3-pointers and everyone on MSU could not avoid fouling. 

The Blue Devils were just 1-for-9 from 3-point range in the first half and shot only 38% from the field, but were 12-for-15 at the free-throw line and found themselves down just four points at the break. Midway through the first half, the Blue Devils were aggressive, forcing turnovers and looking like they were going to run away with the game. 

Enter Foster Loyer. The greatest four-minute stretch of Loyer’s career came in the first half against Duke, and it’s invisible on the box score. Loyer took back-to-back charges, dove on the ground for a loose ball to get possession for MSU and only gave up one basket defensively despite being very undersized. 

Loyer was locked in and everyone else fed off of it. He was the loudest vocal leader on the floor and was the catalyst for MSU’s first-half comeback. Henry fed off of Loyer’s energy and began knocking down shots. Julius Marble got in the game and played as a man possessed, shooting 5-for-5 from the field for a career-high 12 points. The deep bench that the Spartans have allowed them to claw their way back to a halftime lead. 

Foster Loyer runs traffic as MSU battles Eastern Michigan/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

In the second half, it was Watts who found his shot and took over the game offensively for the Spartans. When MSU jumped out to a 16-point lead, it was Duke who needed to formulate a comeback. The Blue Devils’ inexperience and lack of preparation stunted their ability to get back in the game. Johnson was stifled by MSU’s defense, as freshman DJ Steward couldn’t buy a bucket and the entire Duke team resorted to forcing bad shots that MSU easily rebounded and ran with the other way for transition points. 

This all happened because MSU was better prepared than Duke. That preparation is a testament to Izzo’s coaching ability. Izzo was able to keep his guys composed when they got down in the first half, and after they took the lead to the locker room, the Spartans came out firing on all cylinders and extended their lead even more. Izzo wasn’t going to let his team be complacent and let Duke back in the game. 

Coach K could not do the same for Duke. When the Blue Devils found themselves trailing in the second half, they didn’t change their gameplan on either side of the floor and couldn’t manufacture winning plays. 

On paper, Duke is a better team that is supposed to beat MSU with brute force, sheer talent and playmaking ability. To keep it as cliche as possible, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” and the Spartans simply outworked the Blue Devils on both ends of the floor. Henry is easily a top-3 candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, not only in the Big Ten but nationally. If MSU keeps playing defense like it has against Notre Dame and Duke, the Spartans will quickly find themselves as one of four remaining teams in March. 

There’s still a lot of room for improvement for MSU. The Spartans shot poorly from the free-throw line. In back-to-back games now, they’ve had a substantial second-half lead that was trimmed down significantly by the end of the game. However, a top-10 win is a top-10 win. It was a statement win that proved MSU belongs in the conversation as one of the best teams in the country. The Spartans did not play to their full potential and still beat the No. 6 Blue Devils. There’s something to be said for that.

Brendan Schabath is a men’s basketball beat reporter for WDBM Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Bschabath3.