Duke needed a Champions Classic win more than Michigan State and the victory felt so good to the Blue Devils

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The season is still only nine days old. No loss to a quality opponent this early will matter much come March. So it would be an overstatement to suggest that No. 9 Duke had to win Tuesday vs. No. 18 Michigan State.

But can we be honest about something?

Duke really needed to win Tuesday.

Because the only alternative to a win — in this sport, at least — is a loss. And after losing last Friday at home to Arizona, it would not have been ideal for second-year coach Jon Scheyer to drop to 1-2 in Year 2 with two losses as a favorite considering his Blue Devils were ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll.

Again, Duke didn’t have to win Tuesday.

But Duke really did need to win Tuesday, if only to keep folks from asking questions about how Duke went from No. 2 to 1-2, and, yes, about whether its 36-year-old coach is going to be able to provide the on-the-court success that’s expected when you inherit the biggest brand in college basketball and absolutely kill it on the recruiting trail year after year to the point where the Blue Devils’ roster is undeniably stacked.

That’s why Duke really needed to win Tuesday — and it did. 

Final score: Duke 74, Michigan State 65. 

So the Blue Devils are 2-1 instead of 1-2 — and Scheyer explained in his postgame press conference that the past five days have been encouraging even if he’d rather be 3-0 with a win over Arizona than 2-1 with a loss to Arizona.

“We want to play this [kind of] schedule — you play Arizona and Michigan State in two of your first three games. Let’s see where we’re at,” Scheyer said after winning the opening game of the Champions Classic inside the United Center in his hometown of Chicago. “I’ve learned more about this team in the first three games than maybe any team I’ve ever been with.”

Now I know what you’re thinking, Michigan State fans: “But, hey, we’re also one of the biggest brands in the sport. And that loss that would’ve made Duke 1-2 did make us 1-2. Didn’t we need this win just as much as Duke needed this win?”

In a word, no.

That’s because Michigan State’s coach, Tom Izzo, is a Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer who has guided the Spartans to 25 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including eight trips to the Final Four and one national championship. More to the point, Izzo has a history of finishing strong after starting slow.

To wit:

  • Izzo started 2-2 in 2002-03 but still made the Elite Eight.
  • Izzo started 0-3 against top 50 KenPom teams in 2004-05 but still made the Final Four.
  • Izzo lost to Maryland by 18 early in 2008-09 but still made the title game of the NCAA Tournament.
  • Izzo started 0-2 in 2011-12 but still got a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Those four bullet points are why no reasonable Michigan State fan should be too troubled with this 1-2 start, which is not to suggest I don’t understand some frustration. It’s not fun to start 1-2 after being ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll. It’s not fun to watch your team combine to shoot 16.0% from 3-point range in its first three games. It’s not fun to watch your fourth-year starting point guard, AJ Hoggard, miss 21 of his first 26 shots this season after shooting above 41% from the field in each of the past two.

Things aren’t swell.

But, in due time, Michigan State will likely be fine — at worst pretty good and possibly great. That’s what Izzo’s quarter-century track-record suggests. It doesn’t always happen quickly, but it always happens.

Scheyer doesn’t really have a track record, though.

He’s obviously smart and clearly capable of keeping Duke’s campus filled with future pros. For a number of reasons, he’s probably the best recruiter in the sport right now. But until you win big on the court, there will always be people waiting to yell that maybe you can’t. They often call into radio shows and post on message boards. So it’s not really debatable that Scheyer needed this win more than Izzo, and he got it in part because of an unlikely performance from Caleb Foster, who took eight shots, made seven of them and finished with a team-high 18 points after going scoreless last Friday against Arizona.

Foster is the least-heralded recruit in Duke’s four-player freshman class.

He took zero shots last Friday.

“Caleb, he’s as hard as any worker we have on the team, and he’s coming off of a game on Friday … he didn’t like the way it went,” Scheyer said. “Whether he’s pissed at me, pissed at how he played or the game … [when you go] to play at Duke, there’s gonna be ups and downs. There’s gonna be moments where you get knocked back. But the program that I know Duke to be, it’s all about how you respond. And for us as a team, coming off of Friday, but especially individually, like what Caleb did tonight, he won us the game.”

Scheyer then motioned toward Kyle Filipowski and Ryan Young.

Both were seated to his right.

“I mean, these guys did too,” Scheyer said.

“Thanks,” Filipowski cracked.

The room filled with smiles — and I imagine Duke’s campus did as well. No, 2-1 isn’t a perfect start; that loss to Arizona pushed the Blue Devils down seven spots in this week’s AP Top 25 poll. But 2-1 with a win over Michigan State is so much better than 1-2 with losses to Arizona and Michigan State, if only because now nobody will spend Wednesday questioning Duke’s second-year coach. But at 1-2, boy, I bet they would’ve.

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