Rob Dauster

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Michigan State’s loss to Duke and the dueling narratives of a team still trying to find itself

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CHICAGO — Tom Izzo has never been a man to hide the way he feels.

For better or worse, he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and that certainly was the case on Tuesday night in the minutes after his No. 2-ranked Michigan State Spartans lost, 88-81, to No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic.

He blew through the handshake line, already making his way down the tunnel by the time the last player on the bench had finished shaking Duke hands. He gruffed his way through his postgame press conference, getting snippy with reporters he doesn’t typically get snippy with. He was not happy, and you couldn’t blame him for it.

With all the hype surrounding what has annually become the best night of non-conference college basketball, his Spartans had handed Duke a win on a silver platter.

That’s how the Spartans see it, at least.

They beat themselves.

“It was all about what we did,” Jackson said. “We fell apart from the game-plan, especially down the stretch. We played our worst.”

They were the ones that gave up 25 offensive rebounds to a Duke team that was missing Marvin Bagley III for the final 30 minutes. They were the ones that turned the ball over 17 times. They were, quite frankly, the team that struggled to do the same things that they struggled to do a season ago, when the Spartans lost 15 games, struggled to find a way to beat ranked teams and got worked by Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“We were right in the game,” Izzo said. “But we should be. We have a great team.”

And therein lies the frustration for Michigan State.

As the saying goes, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, and after Michigan State’s ballyhooed 2016 recruiting class struggled to live up to expectations, the fact that the four most important names on last season’s roster all opted to return to school generated a level of hype for the Spartans that is generally reserved for their three Champions Classic counterparts.

When Miles Bridges announced on April 13th that he will be returning to school, this season became about immediacy. Michigan State doesn’t have the time to let Cassius Winston or Josh Langford grow into the player that they have the potential to be. Tom Izzo needs them to be their best selves this year, this March. That’s when the window for these Spartans as a national title contender closes, when Bridges and Jackson likely head to the NBA.

Which is why Izzo, his team, his coaching staff and his fan base were all so frustrated last night.

Because aside from the addition of Jaren Jackson, Michigan State didn’t look like a team that was all that much different than last year’s team.

Winston finished with 11 assists, but he still found a way to turn the ball over five times and provide all of three points on 1-for-5 shooting. Langford shot 3-for-9 from the floor and tallied nine points.Bridges had four turnovers. Nick Ward had five turnovers and opted not to keep Duke off of the offensive glass and Jackson has never really been a bruiser. These are the same issues that plagued the Spartans last season.

There are still 29 more regular season games and two postseason tournaments left to play, but the early returns are in: There was no sophomore jump.

Now there are two ways to frame this narrative:

1. Michigan State blew a golden opportunity to land a marquee win. Bridges doesn’t quite know how to take over games the way Grayson Allen does, and, as a result, the Spartans just simply have not learned how to “win the big one”. They are, after all, still a young team, one whose core is now 20-16 in their careers whose only wins over ranked opponents came against then-No. 24 Minnesota and then-No. 16 Wisconsin last season.

This was a game they should have won once Marvin Bagley III went out, and they couldn’t get it done. Maybe this is just who they are.

Or …

2. What it required for Duke to get this win is not something that is going to be replicable. Michigan State’s front court did look dominant on the offensive end of the floor, even if they struggled to keep Duke’s big men off the offensive glass. Winston did hand out 11 assists even though the Spartans did not prepare to play against Duke’s 2-3 zone for 40 minutes. Miles Bridges had an off-night and still finished with 19 points, five boards, four assists and four blocks, hitting a handful of big shots down the stretch.

Oh, and should I mention that Duke’s best player put forward the single-best performance of his career and what may end up being the single-most dominant individual performance we see on a big stage this season?

Think about it like this: With three minutes left, Javin DeLaurier grabbed an offensive rebound, kicked the ball out and got Gray Trent Jr. an open look from three. Trent hit the shot, Duke took a 78-75 lead they would never relinquish and the game was lost. But what if the Spartans had been able to corral that rebound and got a three of their own at the other end of the floor?

My point is that that is how fine the margins were in this game.

Against the No. 1 team in the country.

There is no doubt that the Spartans have issues that need fixing.

No one can win with any kind of consistency giving up that many offensive rebounds and turnovers.

But the fact that they were a play or two from winning despite all those mistakes while playing college basketball’s best team is also significant. They’re not that far away.

I say all that to say this: We won’t know how this game fits into the narrative of Michigan State’s season until we see how the rest of the season plays out.

So don’t go burning your season tickets just yet, Spartan fans. All is not lost.

Five things we learned from No. 1 Duke’s win over No. 2 Michigan State

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CHICAGO – No. 1 Duke knocked off No. 2 Michigan State behind a 37-point explosion from Grayson Allen on Tuesday night.

They won despite losing Marvin Bagley III to an eye injury midway through the first half.

Those two things are facts. Here are five things we learned in the process:

1. DUKE’S ZONE LOOKS LIKE IT HAS SOME STAYING POWER

Duke surprised a lot of people when they came out in a 2-3 zone to start Tuesday night’s game. Mike Krzyzewski has been a proponent of an extended, half-court man-to-man that it is weird to see the Blue Devils doing anything other than denying passing lanes, extending out to half court and daring an opponent’s ball-handlers to try and beat them one-on-one.

But that’s not what we got in the United Center on Tuesday night, and it worked.

“I thought they were just playing 2-3 against lower-major teams and when they played higher-major teams they’d go back to man,” Miles Bridges said. “They were deflecting almost every pass. I guess I had five turnovers, Cash had four turnovers, Josh had five turnovers. We couldn’t even get the ball moving like we wanted to.”

Duke didn’t necessarily come into this game thinking that they were going to play only zone, but it was hard to get out of it once they saw how effective it could be. Michigan State had just 14 points with seven minutes left in the first half. They were down 38-34 at the break, and of those 34 points, 13 came in transition and nine came on three straight possessions in a one minute span where the Spartans buried a three. For the most part, that zone took away everything that Michigan State wanted to do.

And it makes sense when you think about it.

Duke has as much size, length and athleticism along their front line as they’ve had in years, and the combination of Trevon Duval and Grayson Allen at the top of the zone causes havoc. It’s the method that Jim Boeheim has used so successfully over the last 40 years.

“We were worried about fouls,” Krzyzewski said. “In man, they were deeper than us and would wear us down. The nervousness of the game, we might get some dumb fouls.”

And they did.

But in the end the zone ended up being enough.

2. TREVON DUVAL IS A HELL OF A PLAYER

Entering the season, Duval was the biggest question mark on this Duke roster. We knew Grayson Allen had an all-american season under his belt. We know that Gary Trent was a scorer. We knew that Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter would be able to anchor the front line.

What we were unsure of was whether or not Duval was the answer to Duke’s woes at the point guard spot.

He sure looked that way on Tuesday night, finishing with 17 points, 10 assists, six steals and three boards while sparking Duke’s transition game and finding a way to create offense when the Blue Devils needed a bucket.

He’s still not a shooter – 7-for-20 from the floor, 0-for-4 from three, 3-for-7 from the line … that’s not good – and that certainly is a concern for the kind of NBA prospect he can be in the long-term. And to be frank, Duval was at his best after Bagley was out of the game, when he didn’t have to worry about running offense through the most talented player on the Duke roster.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Duke just beat the No. 2 team in the country without Bagley, and Duval was the second-best player on the floor in the game. That means something.

Jaren Jackson Jr. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

3. MICHIGAN STATE HAS THEMSLEVES A PLAYER IN JAREN JACKSON

Miles Bridges did everything he could to bring Michigan State back in this game, and Nick Ward was a bastion of productivity, as he always is.

But the guy that made a name for himself on Tuesday night was Jaren Jackson, a five-star, 6-foot-11 freshman forward that has the talent to be a top ten pick whenever he decides to enter the NBA Draft. He finished with 19 points and seven boards, but more important was the fact that he went 3-for-5 from three and blocked three shots. Players that provide rim protection on end and floor-spacing on the other are, quite literally, the most valuable commodity in basketball when it comes to role players, and Jackson may be the best at that role in the country this year.

He’s the perfect four-man to play alongside Bridges and Ward, and while Michigan State is leaving Chicago with a loss, they should sleep well knowing that their front line made Bagley and Carter look normal.

4. JAVIN DELAURIER IS GOING TO PLAY A MAJOR ROLE FOR THE BLUE DEVILS

DeLaurier didn’t play much as a freshman and didn’t get much attention heading into this season. He may have been a top 50 prospect coming out of high school, but when you’re behind three five-star players on the depth chart a year after failing to crack the rotation, it’s hard to get too excited.

But DeLaurier proved who he can be on Tuesday night, finishing with four points, seven boards, four assists, three steals and two blocks. He’s not all that skilled, but he is long and athletic, and he plays hard. Those are things that are incredibly value to a team that has a plethora of scorers in their starting lineup, particularly when that team is going to be playing quite a bit of zone this year.

In fact, DeLaurier made arguably the biggest play of the game on Tuesday. With just over three minutes left, he grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked the ball out to Grayson Allen, who gathered an assist by swinging the ball to a wide-open Gary Trent. Trent buried a three that broke a 75-all tie and gave Duke a lead they would never relinquish.

DeLaurier isn’t ever going to be a star, but he’ll thrive in the role he’s asked to play.

5. MICHIGAN STATE’S BACK COURT IS STILL A QUESTION MARK

Cassius Winston had 11 assists on Tuesday night. He also had five turnovers, shot just 1-for-5 from the floor and finished with just three points. Josh Langford made some plays in transition, but he was 3-for-9 from the floor and missed some critical shots in the second half.

Those were the major question marks with this team heading into the season.

Could Winston protect the ball? Would he and Langford be able to provide a scoring punch in the back court? If they couldn’t, would there be someone off the bench that would be able to find a way to chip in?

On Tuesday night, the answer was … not really?

It came against the No. 1 team in the country, yes, and their performance was certainly far from bad, but it wasn’t enough for them to get a win over Duke. They need to be better.

Grayson Allen, Trevon Duval lead No. 1 Duke past No. 2 Michigan State

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CHICAGO – It was not a good night for Grayson Allen Haters.

Duke’s senior star scored 23 of his 37 points in the second half and Trevon Duval added 17 points, 10 assists and five steals as No. 1 Duke knocked off No. 2 Michigan State in the opener of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night, 88-81.

Allen, who scored six points in the final minute of the first half as well, finished with seven threes on the night and carried Duke in the second half of a game where the Blue Devils were on the ropes. They were playing without Marvin Bagley III for the final 30 minutes of the game, and their front line struggled against the massive Michigan State Spartans.

All the while, Allen made big shot after big shot down the stretch.

And in the end, it didn’t matter that the top recruit in the Class of 2017 was sitting on the bench with his right eye swollen up, and it didn’t matter that two of Duke’s three remaining elite freshmen were struggling to play up to their potential.

The Blue Devils left the United Center with a win over the No. 2 team in college basketball.

That’s a scary thought.

But not quite as scary as the idea that Grayson Allen is the man that’s here to save college basketball.

Tuesday night is a night that we desperately needed in a sport that has spent the past six weeks dealing with the fall out of the biggest scandal in the sport’s history: An FBI investigation into corruption in recruiting, both by colleges and agents looking to land clients, that has left four assistant coaches and ten men in total facing federal charges. It’s what we needed for a sport whose opening night was dominated by headlines of players being held out of competition and quasi-celebrities on the UCLA roster spending time in a Chinese jail.

Hell, at halftime of the opening game of the double-header Kansas released a statement that said that their star freshman, Billy Preston, was being held out of competition while they investigated how he paid for a car that he crashed last week.

We needed a night to talk about the games, only the games and nothing but the games, and the man to do that was the center of controversy himself, Grayson Allen.

How about that?

In the big picture, the story of this game for Duke is the health of Bagley. After getting poked in the eye by a teammate midway through the first half, Bagley spent a few minutes on the ground – appearing to mouth the words “I can’t see” –  before heading back to the locker room. He returned to the court during halftime, but he did not even warm-up with the team let alone return to the court, and Coach K referred to the injury as a “scratched eye,” and everyone that I spoke to on the Duke staff did not believe the injury to be serious.

Without Bagley on the floor, Duke’s half-court offense sputtered initially. Trevon Duval took some ill-advised shots and Gary Trent struggled to find a rhythm while Wendell Carter was flat-out bad for roughly the first 30 minutes of the game. Duke did enough to get easy offense in other ways – they had 15 offensive rebounds in the first-half and forced eight Michigan State turnovers – but without Carter and Bagley to run sets through, the Blue Devils looked bogged down in the half court.

Duval managed to settle down, however, and proved himself to be one of the best players on the floor. He was an absolute menace on the defensive end, got to the rim at will and ignited Duke’s transition offense. When he figures out his shooting stroke, he’ll have a shot to be a very, very good player.

He was a big reason that Duke’s 2-3 zone was so effective, as was Javin DeLaurier, a sophomore that came off the bench and was terrific for the Blue Devils, his length and activity causing havoc for Sparty. Michigan State was able to figure things out in the second half, as Miles Bridges found his shooting stroke and Michigan State started pounding the ball into the paint. They made their run, they answered the barrage of Allen threes by trying to foul out every big man on the Duke roster.

But, again, Duke had an answer.

It was Allen.

“He’s not a good shooter,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s a great shooter.”

Duke’s roster is loaded with freshmen and sophomores, and not all of those highly-regarded freshmen and sophomores played well on Tuesday. Bagley was injured and did not return. Trent struggled to find his shooting stroke, although he did hit a massive shot down the stretch. Duval was terrific, but Wendell Carter was relatively ineffective until the final 10 minutes of the game. Marques Bolden is … Marques Bolden, and as well as DeLaurier played, he’s a role player. He’s on the floor to be long and athletic and full of energy, and he was long and athletic and full of energy.

Put another way, in a game that was pitted as a battle of the front courts, Michigan State won that fight.

And Duke won the game.

Because Allen put together what may end up being the best performance we see on a college basketball court this season. Two season ago, in this very same building, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine went for 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists as Michigan State landed a come-from-behind win against then-No. 1 Kansas. That performance put him in the driver’s seat for National Player of the Year, and while Buddy Hield did Buddy Hield things all season long, Valentine ended up splitting the National Player of the Year awards.

Allen could very well end up on that same trajectory.

“I’ve played in 90 more games than the four teammates out there with me,” Allen said with a laugh. “So I feel a little bit more comfortable and calm and confident.”

For all the stick he gets, for as much as he is demonized in the media – much of it deserved, some of it over-the-top – Allen is a helluva basketball player when he is healthy.

When we talk about how valuable talented veterans are on these one-and-done superteams, that is what we mean.

Kansas frosh Billy Preston held out due to ‘single-vehicle incident’

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CHICAGO – Kansas announced at halftime of the first game of the Champions Classic that star freshman Billy Preston will be held out of the game due to what the school is calling a ‘single-vehicle incident on campus’.

There were no injuries, according to the release, but Preston’s car sustained damage. He is being held out of action as the school attempts to determine a ‘clearer financial picture’ in regards to the car that Preston was driving.

Without Preston available in the season-opening win against Tennessee State, Kansas started four guards, with Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick playing the three and the four.

UCF’s injury woes continue as B.J. Taylor will miss 4-6 weeks

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No team in America has had to deal with the injury bug the way that UCF has this season.

Aubrey Dawkins is done for the year after undergoing surgery on his shoulder. Tacko Fall is dealing with a hip issue that has held him out of the first two games of the season.

And now they will be without star point guard B.J. Taylor, who fractured a bone in his foot and will miss the next 4-6 weeks, a source told NBC Sports.

The Knights entered the season as a sleeper in the AAC and a potential NCAA tournament team, but they are now looking at playing an extended period of time without their star point guard – who averaged 17.4 points and 3.5 assists last season – and their best big man, not to mention missing their best wing.

If Johnny Dawkins is going to get this group to the NCAA tournament, he’s going to have his work cut out for him.

Report: LiAngelo Ball, UCLA players detained in China are returning to Los Angeles

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Just hours after Donald Trump reportedly enlisted the help of Chinese President Xi Jinping to end the legal process that three UCLA players are going through, the trio of Bruins are set to fly home.

According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill are scheduled to return to Los Angeles on Tuesday. The three players were seen at Pudong International Airport checking into a Delta flight.

Ball, Riley and Hill had been arrested and confined to their hotel in Hangzhou after allegedly shoplifting sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store. The three were reportedly caught on video. They remained in Hangzhou as their teammates – and LaVar Ball – traveled to Shanghai for the team’s 63-60 win over Georgia Tech in the season-opener.

Given what this story has turned into, I do not envy the scene those three will walk into when they arrive at LAX and I certainly do not envy what LiAngelo is going to have to face when he gets home and sees LaVar.