Wojo: MSU-Duke classic sets tone for delectable season ahead
Chicago — All the hype about all the young talent on both teams? Oh, it’s real and legitimate. Unfortunately for Michigan State, the reality of Duke senior sharp-shooter Grayson Allen is just as legitimate.
If this was an appetizer for the college basketball season, yes, we’ll take more please. The No. 1 Blue Devils had too much rebounding and too much Allen and pulled away for an 88-81 victory Tuesday night in the Champions Classic. The No. 2 Spartans flashed their immense potential, led by freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., but naturally, it was the oldest guy on the floor who took over.
Allen scored a career-high 37 points, but when he wasn’t firing up one of his seven 3-pointers, the Spartans hung tough. Not quite tough enough, which surely will grate on Tom Izzo, who now is 1-11 against Mike Krzyzewski.
We saw all the elements that make the Spartans so tantalizing, as Jackson, Miles Bridges and Nick Ward each scored 19. We also saw the concerns about 3-point shooting, and Michigan State was battered on the boards. But trust me, folks, these Blue Devils will batter most opponents far worse than this.
These are the preordained top two teams in the country, and by the sheer volume of talent, they absolutely showed it. No. 1 Duke has all those touted freshmen, but it was Allen who kept shooting them into it.
No. 2 Michigan State has all its great sophomores, led by Bridges, but it was the freshman Jackson pitching in with clutch plays. It was back and forth, even after Duke super-frosh Marvin Bagley III left early with an eye injury. When Ward raced in for a layup and three-point play after the Spartans won a scrap for the ball, the game was tied 56-56 with 12 minutes left.
It tightened up as the Spartans finally started attacking the boards. Jackson’s rebound dunk with 8:07 left sliced Duke’s lead to 65-64, and all over the floor, the initial hype for these teams proved to be legitimate.
The Champions Classic was like a Final Four in November, with Kentucky-Kansas in the nightcap, and it felt like an early holiday. That’s how college basketball is these days, with the top teams eagerly opening their gifts, in the form of freshman stars. Like most new gadgets, you may not play with them longer than a year, but you can’t wait to get them.
Duke has a fabulous one in Bagley, who immediately turned the Blue Devils into the preseason No. 1 when he reclassified for this freshman class. He’s a 6-foot-11 multi-talented scorer who’s unlike anyone Krzyzewski has ever had and he was dynamic early, but left after getting poked in the eye.
On the other side, Izzo has his own wonder kid in the 6-11 Jackson, the type of gifted player who can balance the floor when the Spartans play teams like this. You saw Jackson’s skill, slipping inside to grab an offensive rebound, lay it in and draw a foul. Then you saw his range, hitting back-to-back 3s to bust Duke’s zone defense and help the Spartans turn a 24-14 deficit into a 25-24 lead.
Those were huge, as Michigan State missed its first six three-point attempts. If there’s one concern for Izzo with this team, it’s outside shooting, so it was doubly important to see Bridges also nail one. It was a smooth moment in an otherwise erratic start for both teams, which was to be expected. After all, Michigan State counts as the veteran team with four sophomore starters, while Duke started four freshmen.
The amount of raw skill was staggering enough to actually deflect attention in the midst of another dutifully crazy college football season.
“This is not just another game,” Izzo said beforehand. “It’s going to be one of the greatest nights of college basketball.”
The stakes will grow as the kids grow as the season unfolds, and it’s not hyperbole to say this could be Izzo’s most-talented team, and certainly one of his best shots at the national title since winning it in 2000. Plenty of coaches have one national title, but only 14 in history have two.
Izzo, 62, feels the itch, although he’s way beyond worrying about such nebulous issues as legacies. He’s cemented as one of the game’s all-time greats, but two things have to nag him — that elusive second championship, and his record against Krzyzewski.
“It doesn’t sit very well with me,” Izzo said before the game. “But that’s the next step for us. We have to learn to win big games on big stages. There’s no bigger stage than this tournament. There’s no bigger stage than playing Duke.”
The Spartans had their moments but couldn’t keep Duke’s lanky athletes off the glass. The Blue Devils only shot 30 percent in the first half but held a stunning 15-2 advantage in offensive rebounds. And when they needed a basket, it was the oldest player on their roster who kept providing it. Allen’s long 3-pointer to end the first half stunted a Michigan State rally, and he just kept pushing it.
The Spartans rallied again and again, and with appropriate seasoning, they’ll be difficult for anyone to handle. They would’ve been even more difficult for Duke to handle if not for Allen, who deftly showed the benefit of experience, as well as one of the deadliest shots in college basketball.