INDIANAPOLIS — Any other year, this would probably be the premier matchup of the Final Four.
On one bench sits top-seeded Duke and its record-setting coach, Mike Krzyzewski. On the other is upstart Michigan State and Tom Izzo, one of the finest coaches in the game come March.
But with overall No. 1 seed Kentucky chasing perfection against those lovable goofballs from Wisconsin, the opening game of Saturday night’s national semifinals has taken on an undercard feel — two of the game’s most tradition-rich programs kicking things off at Lucas Oil Stadium before a massive crowd and potentially record-setting TV audience.
“We’ve been that way all year: overlooked, doubted the whole time,” said the Spartans’ Travis Trice, whom Krzyzewski lauded as the breakout star of this year’s NCAA tournament.
“But we don’t really look like it like that,” Trice added. “If we win, people are going to be talking about us.”
The seventh-seeded Spartans (27-11) certainly have come a long way since November, when they were routed by the Blue Devils (33-4) just down the street at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Freshman guard Tum Tum Nairn has replaced Bryn Forbes in the starting lineup, giving Michigan State a much-needed shot of speed. Trice and fellow senior Branden Dawson have learned to shoulder the leadership role. And just about everyone else has found their niche for a team that missed out on the Final Four a year ago, when everyone expected it to contend for the title.
“That was a devastating loss last year,” Izzo recalled Friday. “That’s what the beauty and the terror of the tournament is, you’ve got to play well six straight games to win.”
They’ve already done that four times, beating Georgia and then knocking off in succession second-seeded Virginia, third-seeded Oklahoma and fourth-seeded Louisville.
Now, they a chance to topple a No. 1 seed.
Relying on stingy defense, the Blue Devils have run roughshod through the opening two weeks of the tournament. Even when shots weren’t falling and All-America forward Jahlil Okafor was held in check by Utah and Gonzaga, Coach K’s bluebloods have been just fine.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been potholes on the road to Indianapolis.
The Blue Devils went through a lull in January, losing to N.C. State and getting pounded by Miami. Junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon was booted from the team, the first player to be dismissed by Krzyzewski in 35 seasons. And there were times when the trio of Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow looked like wide-eyed freshmen rather than superstar prospects.
Those growing pains? They made Duke a March monster.