Duke avenged last season’s Elite Eight exit by taking down No. 11 Michigan State, 87-75, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for an impressive non-conference road win.
A week after losing at home to Stephen F. Austin, one of college basketball’s biggest upsets of the last two decades, the No. 10 Blue Devils (8-1) clamped down on defense in the first half while establishing dominant performances from freshman big man Vernon Carey Jr. and sophomore point guard Tre Jones.
Posting his seventh consecutive double-double, Carey finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds and three blocks looking completely dominant against an overmatched Spartans interior defense. Michigan State made the decision not to double Carey on post touches and the freshman made the Spartans pay. Finishing through contact and making quick-and-decisive moves in the post, Carey simply could not be stopped — particularly when Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman wasn’t defending him.
Defensively, Carey continues to make strides while looking worlds better than he did during high school. Uncommitted to that end of the floor at times in his prep career, this version of Carey has established himself as a solid back-line defender who can erase some shots and even draw charges. Carey’s improved defense was a big reason why Duke established its early double-digit cushion and never let off the gas.
The overall performance and general consistency of Carey means he’s not only establishing himself as Duke’s go-to player, but he’s also putting his name firmly in the mix for All-American honors and potentially more. Carey still has to make strides on ball-screen defense and improve on the 57 percent free-throw shooting. It’s also nearly impossible to complain about what he just did to one of the better defensive teams in the country. Had it not been for what appeared to be second-half leg cramps (he returned to the game by the end) then Carey might have easily gone for 30.
Jones, relatively quiet in last season’s NCAA tournament matchup between the two teams, elevated his play to a new level on Tuesday as well. The sophomore finished with 20 points, 12 assists and three steals. Defensively solid as usual, particularly on Michigan State senior Cassius Winston, Jones looked like one of the nation’s best two-way point guards with the way he played in the Breslin Center. When Duke built its comfortable cushion by halftime, Jones deftly alternated between caretaker and catalyst depending on what the situation called for (that bounce pass in traffic to Vernon Carey was nasty).
This is the type of Jones game Duke fans were hoping for before this season. Scoring wasn’t necessary from Jones last season when Duke had so much offensive firepower from the trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. Now that Duke isn’t getting consistent early play from Matthew Hurt (10 points), and Cassius Stanley is out with a minor injury, Jones needed to step up his offensive role for Duke to beat elite teams on the road.
If Carey and Jones can play near this level every night then it makes Duke the preseason title contender everyone believed they would be before the Stephen F. Austin loss. It’s still a long season and ACC conference play has barely started. Duke getting this type of game from its stars in a bounceback road win is huge.
Playing without Stanley, who is missing time after suffering an injury in Friday’s Duke win over Winthrop, the Blue Devils have to feel much better about the performance of role players once Carey established his dominance and Jones manned the ship.
Senior Javin DeLaurier played with flashes of confidence like his former self with 10 points and six rebounds off the bench. DeLaurier and forward Jack White both gave great effort on the interior defensively by consistently falling up and making Michigan State’s guards finish over length. Sophomore Joey Baker added 11 points. On the wing, Baker has been a pleasant surprise scorer for the Blue Devils with Stanley missing from the rotation the past two games.
It was easy to get down on Duke a week ago with the loss to Stephen F. Austin. We also need to remember that Duke has already earned neutral-court wins over Kansas and Georgetown while impressively dismantling Michigan State in their building. Don’t count out Duke if Carey and Jones are rolling.
Michigan State (5-3) clearly has work to do as their brutal early-season schedule continues to make life difficult. The Spartans have now lost to Kentucky at the Champions Classic, Virginia Tech at Maui and this uninspiring effort at home against Duke.
Winston (12 points, seven assists, 4-for-14 shooting) was sluggish on Tuesday as he was harassed by Jones and thwarted by a much-improved Duke interior defense. Xavier Tillman paced Michigan State with 20 points and eight rebounds as he looked like the only consistent offensive option.
Aaron Henry was virtually a non-factor. The Spartans also struggled to 4-for-16 three-point shooting. Even if this loss was jarring, and three losses by this point in the season is unexpected for the preseason No. 1 team, there is still so much time left to play this season.
Michigan State has to address its interior defense and get more consistent help for Winston. It’s likely the Spartans will be able to pile up Big Ten wins but they haven’t shown an ability to beat top-flight opponents except for a win at Seton Hall. There’s still plenty of chances for Michigan State to earn wins over top teams. This loss just shows how far they are from a potential peak.