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Final Four keys: What to watch for in Duke-Michigan State matchup

2015 NCAA tournament Final Four preview: Keys to victory for Michigan State vs. Duke

Four keys to Saturday’s Final Four showdown between the 33-4 Duke Blue Devils, champions of the South Regional and the 27-11 Michigan State Spartans, the East Regional winners.

1. It’s now safe to bet against Tom Izzo.

We've all been reminded these past few weeks that March is Tom Izzo time. The Michigan State coach has led his Spartans to the NCAA tournament ever year since 1998. In those 18 seasons, he’s guided them to nine Elite Eights and seven Final Four appearances. An Izzo-coached team is more likely to make the Final Four than to go home in the first weekend. His seven Final Four appearances since 1999 are more than any other coach in college basketball during that stretch (Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Roy Williams, at Kansas and North Carolina, have five in that same span). And he has more wins as a lower-seeded team (13) against a higher-seeded team than anyone in NCAA tournament history.

But the Final Four has been a separate and less successful challenge for the Spartans. Aside from winning the 2000 national championship with wins over Wisconsin and Florida, Michigan State has gone just 1-5 on the season's final weekend, with its only other national championship game being a loss to Tyler Hansbrough-led UNC in 2009. This might already be Izzo’s best coaching job at Michigan State, and if he ends up with two wins in Indianapolis and his second national title, there will be no debate.

2. Will Jah provide?

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​Duke’s national player of the year candidate, freshman Jahlil Okafor, has had an up-and-down tournament. In the first two rounds against Robert Morris and San Diego State, respectively, he posted offensive ratings of 121 and 137 and scored a combined 37 points on 21-of-27 shooting. Then, in the regionals against Utah and Gonzaga—teams with legitimate 7-footers in their frontcourts—Okafor’s offensive ratings dipped to 57 and 86 and he failed to score in double figures in either game.

Michigan State’s starting frontcourt features 6’5” Denzel Valentine, 6’6” Branden Dawson and 6’9” center Matt Costello. Duke will need Okafor to regain his regular season form in order to open up shooting windows and driving lanes for its guards against Michigan State’s talented backcourt. Duke fans would also feel a lot better about a potential matchup with the giants of Wisconsin and Kentucky if Okafor looks like the All-America he undoubtedly is. Remember, he’s performed well against Michigan State once before this season ...

jahlil okafor michigan state final four preview

3. Indianapolis rematch

It seems so long ago now, but Michigan State and Duke played in Indianapolis earlier this season. In an 81-71 win for the Blue Devils on Nov. 18, Okafor played 30 minutes and scored 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting. "I've been watching him since the eighth grade," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said after that performance. "He had three or four baskets in a row early and only had three or four or five after that. I wasn't disappointed in that; I was just impressed with him."

In that matchup, Duke made its first seven shots and opened up a 10-point lead with 8:51 remaining in the first half. Michigan State got within three in the second half but was never able to close the gap entirely. It was one of the Spartans’ worst defensive performances of the season, as Duke shot 54% from the field and 50% from the three-point line. The Blue Devils also got 24 points off 14 Michigan State turnovers. In order to reverse their fortune in this one, the Spartans will need to take better care of the ball, lock down Duke’s jump-shooters and get off to a much faster start then they did in November.

4. Trice needs to channel his family

Kentucky is heavy Final Four favorite, but title is far from automatic

While senior guard Travis Trice has been the star of Michigan State’s miraculous March, his father, Travis Trice Sr., and two of his brothers were making a title run of their own. On Saturday night, Huber Weights Wayne High won Ohio’s Division I state championship under the leadership of coach Travis Trice Sr. In the win, D'Mitrik Trice, a  senior point guard, was 3-of-6 from three-point range and 6-of-10 from the field; Isaiah Trice is a reserve sophomore guard for the Warriors.

Travis Trice Jr., meanwhile, has been having a pretty good month too. He has posted offensive ratings of 132 (against Virginia), 150 (against Oklahoma) and 105 (against Louisville) and has shot 11-of-27 (40.7%) from the three-point line in his past three games. Michigan State has survived off-games from Valentine and Dawson, but it cannot afford to have anything less than Trice’s best game to have a chance of taking down the more talented Blue Devils. Whatever the Spartans’ outcome in Indianapolis, this has already been a memorable March for the Trice family.