INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State knows they need to slow down freshman center Jahlil Okafor in order to beat Duke on Saturday.
Putting a roadblock down in front of the potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft isn’t some kind of Earth-shattering game plan, but Okafor’s opening flurry against Michigan State in the Champions Classic in November left the Spartans staggering and they never recovered. Okafor scored eight of Duke’s first 14 points in the game’s opening 4:30 in the November contest — also in Indianapolis — and found Amile Jefferson for an assist on another bucket.
Only first-half foul trouble slowed down Okafor and the Spartans never held a lead during the Champions Classic after taking the first punch and dropping to one knee. Okafor finished with 17 points and five rebounds, but he was 8-for-10 from the field and Michigan State did little to slow him down.
With two of Duke’s premier perimeter threats, senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones, struggling to shoot in football stadiums during the 2015 NCAA tournament — as Saturday’s Final Four will be played in the domed Lucas Oil Stadium — the Spartans expect Okafor to get active and involved early just like he did in November.
“That’s where he made his money last time, so I wouldn’t see why they wouldn’t try that again,” Michigan State junior big man Matt Costello said of Okafor setting the tone early.
It might seem easy for Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo to throw on the tape from November and see what the Spartans did wrong against Okafor, but both teams have evolved and adapted from the beginning of the season. The Spartans are more at full strength after early-season injuries to guards Bryn Forbes and Alvin Ellis and Duke has also shortened its rotation after booting Rasheed Sulaimon from the program.
Michigan State has watched some film from the Champions Classic loss but they’ve mostly focused on tape of Okafor from the end of the season to get a clearer picture of how Duke is using him differently within its offense.
“They’re a very different team now. Maybe you can watch some of [Okafor’s] individual moves because they haven’t changed that substantially, but as far as the team? They’ve changed a ton since we’ve played them,” Michigan State junior Colby Wollenman said. “They’re almost a completely different team.”
With Duke opting to go small and starting Matt Jones as another perimeter threat, instead of Amile Jefferson, it changes how often teams can collapse on Okafor with the smaller lineup. The Spartans have also noticed that Okafor has looked even better with the additional spacing than he did earlier in the season.
“We watch a lot of film [on Okafor]. Just the different things we’ve picked up: he’s much more aggressive, much more confident in what he’s doing. We have to take that away,” Costello said.
Costello and sophomore big man Gavin Schilling will be a key in Michigan State’s game plan on Okafor. The Spartans opted not to double team him that much in November and they hope that they can get away with a similar defensive style at times on Saturday. With so many shooters on the floor for Duke, Michigan State is keenly aware that Okafor can score in single digits and Duke could still win.
“We have to be careful of that,” Costello said of the shooters. “But coach has a game plan and if we stick to that plan we have a chance to win.”
With Duke inserting Matt Jones into the starting lineup instead of Jefferson, it’s also made freshman wing Justise Winslow another unique matchup problem for Michigan State. Cook and Tyus Jones are a combined 12-for-37 from the field and 2-for-11 from the 3-point line in the two games Duke played in football stadiums in the NCAA tournament, so it makes Winslow’s recent stretch of strong play that much more important for the Blue Devil offense. Winslow’s power drive game helped close out the Spartans in November as the Houston native had 15 points and six rebounds — going 6-for-9 from the free-throw line.
“A lot of [Duke’s offense] starts with [Okafor] but Justise Winslow has been playing much better throughout the tournament,” Wollenman said. “He was very young at the time [of our first game]. There’s a chance they try to put us in foul trouble with [Okafor], but they do have so many weapons.”
Duke’s offensive firepower lies in the balance of its offense, but Izzo can say the same for his defense, which has greatly improved, from an overall team perspective, since November. Individually, Michigan State offers little resistance to stop future pros like Okafor and Winslow, but as a team, they believe their defense gives them a chance.
“We weren’t real physical. We weren’t as strong as most of my teams have been. We just kind of rallied around,” Izzo said of his team’s defense. “My assistants did a great job of getting guys to buy into the team — team defense. You always play some team defense, but we’re almost strictly team defense. Individually we’re average.”
A group of “average” individuals for Michigan State are going to have to collectively form an elite defense to slow down a couple of future lottery picks. Given Tom Izzo’s track record of teams peaking in March, would it shock anyone if it happened?