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Tom Izzo's 1st win at Cameron Indoor signals start of MSU's ascent to elite status

December 3, 2020
Freshman forward Malik Hall (25) drives on a Duke defender.
Freshman forward Malik Hall (25) drives on a Duke defender. —
Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

Head coach Tom Izzo got his first win at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday night as No. 8 MSU (3-0) took over late in the first half and controlled the game to a 75-69 victory over No. 6 Duke (1-1).

Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Sports seasons in general, and especially college sports, have been drastically altered by COVID-19. Ohio State football might not be eligible for the Big Ten Title game, despite being regarded as one of the favorites, if not the sole favorite, to win the College Football Playoff. 

“But it’s still Cameron; it’s still Duke,” Izzo noted ahead of Tuesday’s matchup. 

In taking this win for what it’s worth, MSU got a statement victory, not just in the scope of this season, but as it pertains to persistent narratives in the Izzo-Krzyzewski chronicles.

“I think I've done a poor job over the years,” Izzo said postgame of his previous matchups with Duke. “It seems like I either get too hyped for the game or I give them too much credit. I thought we were a good team that could beat them.”

Duke took advantage of MSU’s early shooting woes (1-for-8 from three) to jump out to a 13-3 advantage. The Spartans’ shots weren’t falling, but it didn’t feel like the call for heroics that occurred when MSU trailed Zion Williamson’s 2019 team 30-21 before half, prompting Cassius Winston to orchestrate a masterful 13-0 run into the break. 

There wasn’t a show stopping performance from a freshman MSU happened to desperately covet out of high school, rubbing salt in the wound exposed by the disparity of the two programs like usual.  

Izzo had a different tone in his voice leading up to this one. He hoped they would neglect the formidability and “aura of Duke.”

“We got punched in the mouth last year,” Izzo said Monday. “It’s kind of our turn to repay the favor. If you’re a good team and a program as good as ours now, you shouldn’t get caught up in the aura of Duke.”

The game assumed a flow seen few times before in this rivalry, if it’s fair to call it that, as Izzo improved to 3-12 against Duke in his first win on the road. 

These Spartans did not appear to fear Duke by any stretch of the imagination. They looked like the more physical, more experienced, more poised, and the more talented team too. 

I wrote last year that Kenny Goins’ heroics in the aforementioned Elite Eight game were more of an outlier than a turning point in this series after Vernon Carey revived narratives of old. 

But this one showed the tides may indeed be turning.

Izzo got an early statement win at their place. He’s getting the behemoths on the recruiting trail that typically choose the other three blue bloods that comprise the Champions Classic. MSU looks like a tight-knit core that will continue to reload over the next two recruiting cycles. 

Sophomore guard Rocket Watts got the start at point and presented a more athletic lineup, as sophomore forwards and roommates Julius Marble and Malik Hall showed the Spartans can go small or big with a medley of versatile defenders. 

“The second half I just came out just playing aggressive and taking care of the ball and just taking what they were giving me,” Watts said. “I was just executing the whole offense.”

Watts finished with 20 after a cold start. He found Hall for a slam on the break in the first. Junior forward Aaron Henry found Marble for his career high in the second.

Marble went 5-of-5 from the field, hitting a kiss off the glass on a spin, and adding the exclamation point with the slam that put the Spartans up 58-43. Hall got a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double.

MSU held prized Duke freshman guard DJ Steward to 6 points and forwards Jalen Johnson and Wendell Moore to 11 and 4, respectively.

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Junior forward Gabe Brown, who Izzo aims to make “the best sixth man in the country,” went scoreless on 0-3 from three on a night where MSU didn’t shoot it from the outside particularly well. Redshirt junior forward Joey Hauser had a quiet double-double himself.

Henry seemed to finally be responding to Izzo’s perpetual call for him to be more assertive, not only in shot selection but in vocal leadership, saying he felt like he was “(Izzo’s) voice out there.”

 “All players and all the teams get hit, but it's how you respond and how you sustain yourself in the fight,” Henry said. “And I felt like we did a good job of that.”

After being visibly vocal from the bench, he came in to get a quick steal and score to extend the lead to 64-51 late in the second. He was inefficient shooting the ball on 7-for-21 but continues to catalyze MSU on the fast break and took charge when MSU was stagnant in the half court. 

Maybe most significant of all was the attitude guys like Henry and even the usually reserved Marble exuded. The stout forward closed in expressing his thoughts after throwing down the dunk. 

“It felt really good because we’re at Duke and I kind of hate Duke,” Marble said. 

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