There will be no shortage of drama in college basketball this week, as Duke and Michigan State, the top two teams in the country, will square off in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night in Chicago. Duke is coming off of victories over Elon and Utah Valley, while Michigan State defeated North Florida in their lone contest on Friday night. With such little time to prepare for this high-profile showdown, what are the keys to the game for the Blue Devils?
The Killer B’s: Bagley and Bridges
Bridges comes into this season as a leading candidate for player of the year honors after averaging 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds on nearly 50 percent shooting from the field as a freshman. Bridges was a lock as a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but his decision to return to East Lansing makes the Spartans instant contenders for the national title this year.
The 6’7,” 225-pound sophomore has a big build for a small forward, but has incredible athleticism for someone his size, with the ability to finish at the rim over taller defenders and in traffic. His leaping ability made for some highlight reel plays last season, and he can fill it up in the paint. However, Bridges can shoot the ball as well, connecting on nearly 40 percent of his three-point tries last year. An early 20-point, 10 rebound performance against North Florida suggests he’s ready to go.
Bagley instantly became the face of Duke’s top-ranked recruiting class after reclassifying, and has shown glimpses of the freakish skill set that make him a potential top five pick in next year’s NBA Draft. Bagley has racked up double-doubles in both of Duke’s wins, setting the program freshman scoring record with 25 points in the win over Elon before following up with another 24 against Utah Valley. Bagley’s crazy athleticism and inside-out ability have played right into the hands of Duke’s playmakers like Trevon Duval and Grayson Allen, who have made it their mission to assert Bagley on the offensive end.
In such a highly-anticipated game, both of these stars will be in the spotlight. Look for the Blue Devils and the Spartans to get their young studs involved early and often to try to control the momentum of the game.
Battle in the frontcourt
Mike Krzyzewski has said that he doesn’t possess as much shooting on this year’s roster, but that the team makes up for it with the depth of their bigs, like Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr. This will be the first real test for the Duke frontcourt, as they go up against a Spartan team that combines talent with hunger.
Jaren Jackson is likely to be one of the most talented freshmen in the country, and sophomore Nick Ward can really fill it up at times. A key for the Spartans may be the contributions from redshirt senior Gavin Schilling, who figures to play a far more prominent role after missing all of last season due to injury.
Carter and Bagley have been dominant for Duke on both sides of the ball, but they have shown some sloppiness around the glass in the battle for the boards, something they cannot afford to do against a Tom Izzo team. It would not be a surprise to see Krzyzewski give some more minutes to both Marques Bolden and Antonio Vrankovic as he looks to match the Spartans’ physicality. However, while Duke’s young studs will be tested in the frontcourt, the game will likely be won…
… on the perimeter
Yep, herein lies the key for Duke. Freshmen Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. have been very impressive for the Blue Devils thus far, and Grayson Allen looks extremely comfortable playing off of his teammates. However, they’re going to have to do a lot of running to match the pace of Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford.
Izzo famously called Winston one of the best passers the university had ever seen last season, and while he hasn’t quite lived up to that mantra he remains a fantastic true point guard that knows how to find Bridges in his spots on the floor. Langford will undoubtedly be called to score upon more this year, and has that combo guard mentality to shoot the ball from the perimeter and create his own looks off the dribble.
Duval is Duke’s first true point guard in years, and his court vision is tremendous, but with Duke lacking backcourt depth, he can’t get into foul trouble chasing Winston around the floor. Because of Michigan State’s size and length, it’s likely that Duke will play a zone, so they’ll have to be quick on their rotations and not allow Winston to get into the lane and feed the post men.
The bottom line
If Duke controls the perimeter and Allen and Trent knock down some shots from beyond the arc, that should free up the Blue Devils to look to Carter and Bagley inside. Of course, a player of Bridges’ caliber can sometimes win these game on their own.