Seth Curry scored 29 points, knocking down six of his nine three-pointers, lifting Duke to a 71-61 victory over Michigan State and a spot in the Elite Eight. Rasheed Sulaimon (16 points, 4 rebounds) and Mason Plumlee (14 points, 7 rebounds) also provided a major boost for the Blue Devils in their hard-fought victory
Despite the impressive season Duke has put together, there haven’t been many games that have left me with a massive, satisfied smile on my face. It seemed that, in almost every contest, there was something that could be improved upon. Maybe Duke could’ve rebounded better. Maybe they could’ve played defense a little more efficiently. Maybe Mason Plumlee looked a little too weak.
Not today, though. Today, I analyzed the hell out of this game. I analyzed the game until my eyes started to burn a little and the feel-good, Pro-Duke vibe (which I rarely see in Southern California) had worn off entirely in the bar I was sitting in. I analyzed it until I could tell you nearly every stat every player could put up, regardless of how mundane of a category it was. I analyzed and analyzed and analyzed. And I can promise you this: not once, during the entire time, did the smile fade away from my face.
Duke was out-rebounded 33-26, but they never appeared overpowered or out-hustled. A few more balls bounced Michigan State’s way, but Duke still fought like hell on the boards for most of the game. When you start a lineup with three guys 6’4 or shorter, you aren’t going to win the rebounding battle often, but the Blue Devils fought like hell and didn’t give away too many opportunities.
They shot 40.8%, which isn’t that great, but no one ever shoots that great against Michigan State. They worked for open shots and ran a fluid and effective offense, only turning the ball over seven times in the entire contest. They scored 71 points against the Spartans, a mark that a team hadn’t reached since Illinois scored 80 against them on January 31st, a mark that has only been reached five times all year against Michigan State. They were about as good as you could’ve asked against Tom Izzo’s always-tough defense, and about as good as you could’ve asked was enough.
They had an intimidating force in the paint, with Senior Ryan Kelly blocking four shots and affecting a hell of a lot more. And don’t forget Plumlee, who overcame his Gumby-like strength and turned in an impressive effort. He didn’t dominate, but he never looked physically over-matched.
While there are plenty of examples of teams winning with a balanced attack, it often takes one or two guys stepping above and beyond their usual performances to pick up a victory. Duke received this effort from players both new and old, with Senior Seth Curry and Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon leading the way. It got to a point where it felt like every shot Curry threw up was going in, and his 29 points might as well be 31, considering the refs missed a blatant goaltending call at Curry’s expense at one point in the first half. When Curry is on, he is one of the more dangerous players in the nation, and he did a hell of a job showing it tonight.
Sulaimon, who has experienced his own share of inconsistency this season, turned in his second straight impressive performance, following up a 21-point outing against Creighton with a 16-point effort tonight. He only took six shots, but he consistently worked hard for a shot, getting to the line fourteen times and converting twelve of them. His effort seemed to exhaust the Spartans, and he could become the key to Duke’s deep tournament run.
Tyler Thornton adequately his role of Mr. Everything tonight, knocking down his only shot, a three-pointer early in the first half, and collecting three rebounds, two steals, two assists, and a never ending supply of hustle plays (one of which led to a Flagrant-One Foul).
It was one of the more complete efforts Duke has put together this season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Now, Duke moves on to face the Louisville Cardinals, a team they’ve already beaten once this season (a 76-71 victory in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament final). The experts will all tell you the same thing: it is very difficult for one team to beat an evenly-matched team twice in one season. In a game that is an essential 50/50 match-up, it is too difficult to grab two consecutive wins.
I agree entirely with this argument. Everyone has a chance to make adjustments, and the crapshoot that was the first Duke-Lousville game could have easily went the other way. For luck to swing in Duke’s favor two games in a row is a tall order.
However, Duke is playing some of their best basketball of the season right now, and they have a fairly decent shot at pulling off the feat. Perhaps I’m coming off as just another biased fan, but I’ve been more critical of this team over the course of this season than most. And now, finally, for the first team all year, I’m starting to believe this team is capable of winning a championship.
Tonight was an exciting game. On Sunday afternoon, we’re going to see another one. I can’t promise Duke will win, because Louisville is a heck of a team, but I can promise you this: Coach K’s squad is going to fight like hell. And, if they go down, they won’t be going down easy.
Bring it on, Louisville.