One is an experienced No. 1 seed that dominated the ACC, the ACC tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The other is a No. 5 seed that limped into March, lost its best player to a season-ending injury and needed a last-second shot from an obscure reserve with a funny name to advance to the second weekend.
There is plenty to separate Duke and Michigan State in 2009-10, but there are at least two things each team now has in common: They're both among college basketball's elite. (Nike agrees; both are part of the Nike Elite sub-franchise of college basketball gear and both have those weird watermark designs you might have noticed on the back of their respective uniforms.) And after Sweet 16 wins in Friday night's late session, both are moving on to familiar territory: the Elite Eight.
Another similarity? The pedigree of the coaches on the sideline. On Sunday, Tom Izzo will be coaching in his seventh Elite Eight. He's 5-1 in regional finals. Mike Krzyzewski will be coaching in his 12th. He's 10-1 in regional finals. If these are elite programs -- Nike said so! -- they are elite because of those men, the two best, most experienced coaches left in the NCAA tournament.
Yet another similarity? (I promise I'm not going to keep doing this.) The way they won. In Houston, Duke held off a scrappy defensive effort from Purdue, eventually pulling away and winning 70-57. Meanwhile, Michigan State grinded out a 59-52 win over Northern Iowa in St. Louis, ending the Panthers' miracle run to the Sweet 16 in the process.
Both wins featured plenty of defense. Michigan State held UNI to 0.9 points per possession, a defensive stronghold that got more and more difficult for Northern Iowa to crack as the game went on. In the last 10:22, Michigan State held UNI to 10 free throws -- and not a single made field goal -- to seal the win. Korie Lucious was big in Kalin Lucas' absence, notching 10 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals and one clutch whirling turnaround jumper with 95 seconds remaining to give MSU a decisive two-possession advantage.
UNI was always going to play a slow, defensive game. The testament to the Spartans is not just that they were able to play this style effectively for 40 minutes, but that when it came down to it, they were able to beat the Panthers at their own game. Neither team grabbed many offensive rebounds. Neither team committed too many turnovers. And neither team shot the ball particularly well. The game came down to stops -- who could stop whom, when, and how. In the end, the Spartans stopped the Panthers. Comprehensively so.
Meanwhile, Duke was in its own defensive battle for much of its game against putative underdog Purdue. (Despite the programs on hand, it's not unreasonable to say that UNI was much less of an underdog to Michigan State than was Purdue to Duke.) Thanks to Purdue's pressure man-to-man, Duke couldn't find open looks. What points did come came mainly from offensive rebounds, where the Blue Devils dominated -- grabbing 44.4 percent of their misses compared to the Boilermakers' 17.9. Until the nine-minute mark in the second half, the game was close, JaJuan Johnson was keeping Purdue within reach, and anything looked poised to happen.
Then, well, Nolan Smith happened. Smith hit two quick shots, and after a pair of Johnson misses, Duke guard Jon Scheyer found Smith for an open 3 in transition that pushed the Duke lead to nine. The Blue Devils never looked back, and Purdue didn't have the horses to keep up.
Those looking to praise the merits of that oft-overused cliche -- "they just played with more heart" -- can find a pretty relevant piece of anecdotal evidence in Purdue. The Boilermakers were outsized from the outset. Johnson was the one player on the floor able to match up with Duke's front line, and one player is not enough to keep the likes of Kyle Singler, Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas and the Plumlee brothers off the glass. For a while, though, this disadvantage didn't seem to matter. Purdue was Purdue -- forcing turnovers, playing aggressive, slap-happy defense out to 42 feet, getting points in transition. It almost looked plausible.
But after 30 minutes, the loss of Robbie Hummel was too much to overcome. But Purdue fans who feel existentially robbed of a potential Final Four berth can at least rest assured knowing their team didn't do the easy thing. It didn't give up. The Boilermakers played with, yes, heart. Lots of it. They should be proud.
In any case, that's the story of Friday's late games: pedigree. After two early wins from incursions unused to playing in the Elite Eight -- Tennessee and Baylor -- we got two of the tournament's most established, nationally known programs, led by two of the country's best, most famous coaches. Hey, we all like upsets. But sometimes a little pedigree is nice, too.