Spartans and Blue Devils streak back to the top
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Spartans and Blue Devils streak back to the top

Two projected Final Four teams climbing again in polls after their early tumbles

Photo: Aaron Henry defends Tre Jones

By Tom Shanahan

Michigan State and Duke – respectively the preseason Nos. 1 and 4-ranked teams -- again appear Final Four worthy. Their lineup rotations that endured early season hiccups are coming into sharper focus with conference play fully underway.

If so, the NCAA, come bracket time, surely won’t match them in the same regional like it did for last year’s showdown.

Will they?

You’ll recall the Spartans won 68-67 last March Madness, but since the showdown was played as an East Regional final, the pairing popped the national anticipation balloon flying high for Duke’s Zion Williamson to lead the Blue Devils into TV air time the Final Four.

This year there is no team with a Zion Williamson, the first pick of the 2019 NBA draft. But at the same time Kentucky, the other school that typically has a roster with multi-lottery picks, doesn’t have an Anthony Davis, the first pick of the 2012 NBA draft.

That leaves the field open to the team that has balance, depth and defense and is playing its best at the end of the year. That fits both Duke and Michigan State: they have all three qualities and neither is considered close to their ceiling in the words of their own coaches, Duke’s Mike Krzyzyewsk and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.

It’s true Duke freshman Vernon Carey has developed into a lottery pick, but he began the year projected at the bottom of the first round. And the Spartans have a national player-of-the-year candidate in Cassius Winston, his size, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound, tempers his draft stock as a late second-rounder.

Michigan State (13-3, 5-0 Big Ten) has now won eight straight games and are the only remaining team unbeaten in conference play in a league that has 12 schools in the NCAA picture. They have climbed to No. 8 in the latest post after dropping as low as No. 16.

With the start of the New Year, the Spartans have defeated three consecutive projected Big Ten NCAA Tournament teams: Illinois by 10, No. 19 Michigan by 8 and Minnesota six.

Winston has climbed out of the emotional cloud holding down his game after his older brother Zachary took his life on Nov. 9. The patient coaxing of Winston by Izzo, who is an impatient man, to regain “normalcy,” as Tony Dungy advised him is worth Coach of the Year votes. In the last three games, Winston has gone for 21 points, six assists, Illinois; 32 and nine, Michigan; and Minnesota, 27 and nine.

The Spartans also are playing better with a louder leadership voice Izzo wants out of Xavier Tillman (6-8, 245). He put up a double-double of 19 points and 16 rebounds against Minnesota’s 6-10 Daniel Oturu.

As for Michigan State still having a high ceiling, much of that depends on a combination of Rocket Watts, who missed four games, and undersized sophomore Foster Loyer (dubiously listed at 6-0, 175), managing to spell Winston. So far they’ve been too inconsistent.

Duke (14-1, 4-0 ACC), like Michigan State, has won eight straight and is the ACC’s only remaining unbeaten team in conference play.

Beginning with a New Year’s Eve, the Blue Devils have beaten Boston College by 39, Miami and by 33 and Georgia Tech by nine.

The Georgia Tech game marked the ninth time four Blue Devils have scored in double figures. Carey is averaging 18.1 points and 8.8 rebounds and sophomore point guard Tre Jones 14.3 points and 7.2 assists and then the Blue Devils have the luxury of several options to be their third or four scorer.

Freshman forward Matthew Hurt is averaging 11.6, freshman guard Cassius Stanley, 11.2, freshman guard/forward Wendell Moore 7.4, sophomore forward Joey Baker 6.2 and junior guard/forward Alex O’Connell 5.9.

Junior guard Jordan Goldwire's value to the team isn’t told by statistics, 3.6 points and 2.3 assists. It’s his ability relieve Jones for regular substitution patterns or when Jones gets in foul trouble. He can run the offense and play disruptive defense. Without Goldwire, Moore's finger injury sidelining him indefinitely would be more costly.

Michigan State doesn’t have as many multiple third-scoring options as Duke, but they have potent ones with sophomore guard/forward Aaron Henry (10.0), sophomore guard/forward Gabe Brown (8.8), sophomore forward/center Marcus Bingham (4.9) and freshman forward Malik Hall (4.9) and senior Kyle Ahrens (3.5). They all have room to grow, especially Henry, who is playing before performance in last year’s NCAA Tournament run to the Final Four.

Defensively, Duke is ranked 49th in the nation, allowing 62.5, and Michigan State 72nd at 64.1. Neither ranking is high, but the point average is sufficient, especially considering the opponents and with Duke averaging 83.4 points (sixth) and Michigan State 81.7 (tied for 14th).

Now, that brings us back to where Michigan State’s winning streak began: An embarrassing 87-75 loss at home to Duke that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests. Izzo expressed dismay his team was beaten mentally and physically, rare for one of his teams in a big game. That will give him plenty of buttons to push if there is a rematch.

Will the two teams continue to improve? Will the NCAA this time place them in separate regional brackets?

But here is something else to consider: Vernon Carey's second choice to Duke was Michigan State. Now that he has joined the national-player-of-the-year discussion with Winston, he might be a deciding factor in a national title.

Stay tuned.

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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light

-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.


Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.


David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer,, and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."