Duke and Michigan State will meet at Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight in the final game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The contest lost a bit of luster after Michigan State fell to Connecticut in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational, which dropped the Spartans from No. 2 to No. 6 in the AP poll, but it is still a huge event and potential Final Four preview. Here are five key questions entering the game, plus my prediction.
1. Will Michigan State rediscover its grit?
Over the last decade, no program has exemplified toughness more than Michigan State. So it has been somewhat surprising to see the Spartans out-hustled at times this season. Michigan State usually enters the NCAA tournament with one of the best rebound margins in the country, yet thus far they have only beaten opponents on the boards by an average of two per game -- paltry considering the level of competition. In the consolation win in Maui against Washington, the Spartans gave up eight dead-ball rebounds. That's purely a hustle stat. If the Spartans are going to win tonight, they're going to have to be scrappier and grittier than the Blue Devils.
2. Did Kyle Singler end his cold streak?
The 6-foot-8 senior forward has not shown much of a shooting touch in the early going. Before breaking out for 30 points on 9-of-15 shooting in Duke's win over Oregon last Saturday, Singler had converted just 40.6 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from three-point range. You'll recall that Singler also started off shooting poorly last season, but that was attributed to his adjustment to playing on the perimeter. This time around, it's just a cold streak. If that streak ended in Portland, Michigan State is in for a long night.
3. Can the Spartans limit their turnovers?
Even while playing their way to the Final Four, the Spartans had problems holding on to the ball. They ranked sixth in the Big Ten in turnovers last season with nearly 12 per game, and they averaged 15.3 in Hawaii. That could create a lot of problems tonight. The Blue Devils are the scariest fast-breaking team in the country, not only because they can convert layups and dunks, but because they can also kill you from three-point range on the break. The magic number here for Michigan State is 12. If they commit 12 or fewer turnovers, they have a chance to win. Anything more, and they're toast.
4. Will the real Durrell Summers stand up?
Summers can be as maddening as he is talented. The 6-4 senior guard was Michigan State's best player during last year's NCAA tournament, and all reports out of East Lansing indicated he worked his tail off this summer and fall. So it was a little mystifying to see Summers shoot 7-for-30 during his three games in Maui. Summers did hit two critical late jumpers in the win over Washington, but he will need to rediscover his form tonight.
5. Will Duke be able to maintain its focus for 40 minutes?
If there's one chink in Duke's armor right now, it's a tendency to be overly reliant on scoring spurts. The Blue Devils roared out to a 23-9 lead against Marquette, but they relaxed and let the Golden Eagles back into the game. The score was still tied midway through the second half when Duke put on another burst, this time outscoring Marquette 13-2 over a three-minute span. They did the same thing against Oregon with a 20-0 run. It's nice to have what my CBS colleague Clark Kellogg calls "spurtability," but it's a dangerous game to just assume that those bursts will always bail you out of a tight spot.
One thing I'm certain of is that Michigan State is going to play well. When do the Spartans ever have a chance to play in a big game like this with absolutely no pressure? I heard they had their best practice of the season on Monday. Plus, they'll once again have the services of Derrick Nix, a 6-8, 280-pound sophomore who stayed home from Maui to deal with some personal issues (one of which was his lack of playing time). Nix isn't exactly the second coming of Shaq, but the Spartans will benefit from having another big body.
In the end, though, Michigan State is going to need some help from Duke to win this game. I don't think the Blue Devils are going to be in a very giving mood. Most freshman point guards have the potential to wilt under these circumstances, but Duke's Kyrie Irving is not most freshmen point guards. He is as poised and smart as they come, and he simply has too many options at his disposal.
Duke 79, Michigan State 70