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Why Duke deserves national title shot

INDIANAPOLIS -- Matt Jones sent out a baseball outlet pass to an awaiting Quinn Cook, and Justise Winslow -- a good 90 feet behind the play -- bent over, untying and retying his sneakers.

No need to rush.

Duke had this one -- had the play (Cook completed the layup), had the game and had it really with a stranglehold.

Which isn't really a surprise. The Blue Devils have had a choke hold on this entire NCAA tournament, their 81-61 win against Michigan State in the national semifinal the latest in what has been a march on March.

The beauty of the NCAA tournament is that it creates the unexpected -- upsets and heroes and unforgettable moments commingling for a three-week soap opera on the hard court.

But sometimes all of that upheaval robs the NCAA tournament of the best teams. The best team doesn't always win this thing. The best teams don't even always play for the title.

The tournament got this one right.

Duke is one of the best teams in college basketball.

The Blue Devils ought to be in the title game.

"Being in a national championship game, it's crazy," Mike Krzyzewski said. "Sometimes you're lucky. This team has really earned it. A couple of times we've been in it and we were lucky. A couple times we've lost -- one time in particular, we lost a really tough game. But this team deserved to be in it, so it makes it even better."

It sounds silly, if not altogether blasphemous, to say Duke has flown under the radar this season. The Blue Devils set the bar on the radar a long time ago. But Kentucky's pursuit of history has cast a big, blue shadow over the entire sport, dimming even the always-in-the-spotlight Blue Devils.

Duke didn't necessarily help its cause, suffering a mini-January swoon that made it look vulnerable and beatable.

The Blue Devils haven't looked that way much lately.

Especially this month.

They have won their five games to reach the national championship by an average of 17.6 points per game, with only Gonzaga making it mildly interesting for a time.

The game against Michigan State was easily the best. Krzyzewski, who has seen a few minutes of good basketball in his life, labeled the last 36 minutes of the game against the Spartans "sensational," gushing about how well his team played.

He wasn't wrong.

After allowing Michigan State to scorch the first four minutes with four 3-pointers and 5-of-7 shooting to skate to a 14-6 lead, the Blue Devils essentially stopped everything. The Spartans shot 3-of-20 to finish the half, failing to connect on another trey by the break. A mere eight minutes after they trailed by eight, the Devils led by that many, the advantage up to 11 at halftime.

"They did a good job of taking us away, denying us," said Michigan State's Travis Trice.

The Spartans couldn't return the favor. Tom Izzo elected to not double Jahlil Okafor and let him get his points, concentrating instead on the outside shooters. The plan essentially worked -- Okafor had 18, the Devils shot just 2-of-10 from the arc -- but the Spartans still lost by 20.

The reason: Duke has essentially eight players. All eight were a factor in an offense that ate up the Spartans inside (42 points to 26 in the paint, the most the Spartans have allowed all year) and shot a blistering 51.4 percent in the half court, the best by a team in this tournament against the Spartans by 17 percentage points.

"We have a lot of weapons beyond the arc, so guys were staying home," Cook said. "We saw seams we could take advantage of. Coach gives us the freedom to make the right read at the right time. Guys played confidently out there."

The funny thing is Duke looked pretty good early in the season, too -- at least in the win-loss column, streaking out to a 14-0 start that included dominant wins against two of the four teams in this national semifinal.

But Krzyzewski knew it was smoke and mirrors, that his team wasn't really good yet. The Blue Devils were young, with a working roster of eight that relied heavily on four freshmen. They were getting by on talent, which is good enough for some months, but not for March.

Those January losses, to NC State and Miami, weren't so much the Blue Devils getting beat as they were getting exposed.

Their defense simply wasn't good. It was so lousy, in fact, that Krzyzewski, who has built a career treating zone defense like it has a severe case of the cooties, abandoned his man-to-man.

And now?

Now Michigan State shot just 34.1 percent in the half court against the Blue Devils, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Spartans' worst effort all season.

There was no magic button or formula so much as the simple changes that come with experience and growth. Good players got better, individually and more, collectively.

The numbers now are almost staggering. Michigan State is the first team to top 60 points against the Blue Devils in this tourney, and the Spartans hit the plateau with only two minutes left in the game.

"We keep getting better," Krzyzewski said. "It's because our guys are paying attention, wanting to learn. They've become smarter together. In other words, they talk about the game more while the game is going on, in preparation than they did earlier in the year. When guys are out, they're saying, 'Remember, you got to do this.' They've gotten better."

There is better, and then, of course, there is best.

Since Okafor, Winslow and Tyus Jones committed to Duke, most everyone thought Duke could be one of the best.

On Monday, Duke gets the chance to prove it's the one and only.