A few months ago, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was wondering if he'd made the right decision by having the Spartans play the likes of Connecticut and Duke.
But with all three teams now in the Final Four, Izzo says he thinks those games will help the Spartans in St. Petersburg even though Michigan State lost both matchups.
In Saturday's NCAA semifinals, Duke (36-1) and Michigan State (33-4) face off at 8:17 p.m. at Tropicana Field after Connecticut (32-2) takes on Ohio State (27-8) at 5:42 p.m. The winners of Saturday's games will meet for the NCAA championship at 9:15 p.m. Monday.
The last time the Spartans and Blue Devils met, Duke held Michigan State point guard Mateen Cleaves to 3-of-17 shooting and only nine points. Izzo admitted after that Dec. 2 game in Chicago that Cleaves pressed too much.
But Izzo sees a different ability now in his star point guard. And he says his Spartans are pitching in as a team to get the job done.
"I think Mateen is a lot better now than he was then," Izzo said. "I really think A.J. Granger has stepped it up a couple of notches. I think Andre Hutson is getting better and better."
Granger scored 14 points in Sunday's 73-66 win over Kentucky in the NCAA Midwest Regional, with three of those baskets three-pointers. Hutson also scored 14, while Cleaves had 10 points and 11 assists.
As in Sunday's game against Kentucky, the Spartans fell behind by 13 points against with Duke. But in a move that has become a Spartan trademark this season, they battled back, closing to within 58-55 with 6:08 to play.
On Sunday, the Spartans built on their comeback to beat Kentucky. They weren't so lucky against the Blue Devils, who shut down the Spartans after Cleaves missed several key shots.
Despite losing 73-67, the Spartans ended the Duke game with a 36-20 edge in rebounds, which could help them Saturday if they can repeat the feat. So far this season, they've outrebounded their opponent in 35 of their 37 games while winning 33 times.
They also do a good job on defense. Heading into Saturday's contest, they've allowed 60 or fewer points in eight of their last 10 outings. In their four NCAA games so far, they've held their opponents to just 38.5 percent shooting from the floor.
That may be tougher against Duke, which has averaged 93 points per game this season. But Izzo, while acknowledging his team faces a huge challenge, remains optimistic.
"We're going to find a way to check 'em," he pledged.
That may require some extra maneuvers in practice, which Izzo plans to keep as normal as possible before the team leaves Thursday for Florida. Despite the experience he gained in their first matchup, Izzo isn't preparing the Spartans for the Blue Devil team they played in Chicago, but the one awaiting them in Florida.
"I think we're a lot better team than we were in December, and I think they're a lot better team than thy were in December," he said. "So we're going to have to make some strides this week."
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