March 28, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
INDIANAPOLIS - The most recent point of reference in the reliably recurring rivalry between Michigan State and Duke occurred last season at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The Spartans had the distinct misfortune of being scheduled to play the Blue Devils in the Champions Classic the day legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski was going for his NCAA-record-breaking 903rd victory.
Of course, Duke won, 74-69, to make Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo answers to a question in the "Trivial Pursuit, Tobacco Road Edition" board game.
Michigan State will engage the Blue Devils for the ninth time since 1994 on Friday night in a Midwest Regional semifinal Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson will start their second straight game against Duke, but Draymond Green and Brandon Wood have been replaced in the starting lineup by Derrick Nix and Gary Harris.
"I think we're much better at all the positions now," Payne said. "Last year we weren't as good as we are now because I think we all had time to get better, and focus on what we've got to do and learn our roles. I think we've done a good job of that, and we're ready."
However, Nix had a similar appraisal of Duke.
"They're different, and I think they're better," Nix said. "They've got an inside-outside game now."
Dawson was still months away from sustaining a season-ending knee injury that he's still coming back from, so he was healthier the last time he face the Blue Devils. But, he was also anxious.
"Being I was a freshman, I was nervous," Dawson said. "That was my first time playing in New York, first time playing at Madison Square Garden. So I'll say it was very different."
Michigan State beat Duke the last time they met in the NCAA Tournament, 78-68, in the 2005 Austin Regional.
However, while MSU-Duke has been a high-profile series, it hasn't been a great rivalry because the Spartans are 1-7 in the last eight meetings.
"We're always playing Duke, it seems, and not getting our share of wins," Izzo said. "We've played well against Duke and haven't beaten them enough and if you're going to try to get your program to a certain level, you don't do it by talking it. You do it by earning it.
"I think player-for-player we match up with them. It's going to be which players play better that's going to determine it."
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Appling said he's suffering no ill effects from the shoulder injury he sustained against Memphis.
"My health situation is very fine," he said. "I wouldn't say my shoulder is 100 percent, but it's close to it. I'm going to do as much as I possibly can to help my team advance in this tournament.
"Right now I feel like it's more mental than anything. If I try not to so much worry about how my body's feeling or anything else that's going on, I feel like I play better. So I'm just trying not too much to worry about it and just go out and play and have fun.
Nix's facial expressions and body language were worth a 1,000 words when a call didn't go his way, or he didn't get a call, in second- and third-round wins over Valparaiso and Memphis.
Izzo is confident Nix, a senior with only one more game guaranteed on his schedule, will maintain his composure against the Blue Devils, however.
"Normally, he's not as goofy," Izzo said. "You'd have to appreciate this, and it's the most honest statement I can give you is, he's afraid of it ending. It's like being backed into the corner. For the most part, over the years, and there's always different issues with Derrick because Derrick's Derrick.
"I sat down and talked to him about it, and I think he'll do great. If he doesn't, I'll pull him out for a minute and put him back in."
Izzo clarified his position on players' cell phones. Yes, he has asked the players to leave them in their hotel rooms while traveling to practice. But, as much as he'd like to, he hasn't confiscated them and entombed them in 12 feet of concrete.
"I want to make sure that everybody knows, if I took their cell phones away from them, my guys would die," Izzo said. "That'd be un-American. I didn't do that. But like coming here (to Lucas Oil Stadium), it's nice to not see guys texting and Tweeting.
"Going to practices and coming down to meetings, they used to keep them in their pocket and put them on Airplane mode or whatever. That's out now. They just leave them in their rooms and that's been a treat, it's been a joy, it's what all America should do."
The Spartans are in the same Indianapolis hotel they occupied during the 2012 Big Ten Tournament, which they won. But, that wasn't by choice.
"They place you in hotels," Izzo said. "You've just got to be a high enough seed that you don't get place in that tent city with outdoor port-a-johns. It just so happens, it's in the same place."
Michigan State's first NCAA Tournament game was played at 12:15 p.m., but it will face Duke at 9:45 p.m. How will the Spartans spend the day?
"Everything's the same for both teams, but we'll get up a little later and figure out how to do some things during the day," Izzo said. "We'll get some rest, but early, and once we get them up, we'll keep them moving. I don't want them sitting in their room or sleeping all day. I don't think it's going to be problem, but if it is, it's the same problem for Duke."
Izzo's patented candor gained national attention when he told a national radio show that his son, Steven, picked Duke over MSU to advance to the Elite Eight.
"I hope he's right," Krzyzewski said. "One of my granddaughters picked Montana to win the whole thing. She had Montana beating us in the national championship game, so I wouldn't bet necessarily on what kids or grandkids do.
"But, I thought that was a great story and for Tom to share it, that's a good thing. And by the way, his son will be sitting on our bench and has a scholarship to Duke. I've been communicating with him and have arranged that deal. So, (Steven) sold him out, but he sold him out for a good price, so it's a good thing."
While Izzo and Krzyzewski have emphasized that their role in the game is secondary to the players who compete in it, Appling drank in the significance of their coaching showdown.
"It's incredible," Appling said. "Two future Hall of Fame coaching going at it in the Sweet 16 - it doesn't get any better than this."