Throughout this season, Duke became accustomed to having one, and usually two, of its senior starters resting rather than practicing.
This week, in preparation for a Midwest Regional field that houses talent rivaling the Final Four, that luxury is no longer possible.
Over the last two days in practice, as No. 6 Duke gets ready to face No. 9 Michigan State in an NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinal Friday night (9:45 p.m., WRAL) in Indianapolis, guard Seth Curry and forward Ryan Kelly haven’t been allowed their normal rest and recovery time.
Instead, over the last two days, Curry has worked through his lingering leg injury while Kelly is practicing despite being only a few weeks removed from missing 13 games with a right foot injury.
In previous weeks, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told those players to save their best for games. Playing in the only region in the NCAA Tournament with three top-10 teams still alive makes that impossible.
“We have to kind of push the envelope now,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday. “We have to be prepared.”
The Blue Devils (29-5) will face a Michigan State (27-8) squad they are familiar with from season’s past. While they haven’t met this season, Duke owns wins over the Spartans in each of the previous two seasons.
Duke senior center Mason Plumlee, a second-team All-American who averages 17.2 points and 10 rebounds, has faced Michigan State’s rugged senior center Derrick Nix, who stands 6-9 and weighs 270 pounds.
“Their first five are really strong and they bring a couple of good guys off the bench,” Plumlee said. “We’re going to have to be ready for a physical game.”
Curry, Duke’s sharp-shooting guard who averages a team-best 17.3 points, has been on the court against Michigan State junior guard Keith Appling, who leads the Spartans with 13.3 points per game.
Kelly, Duke’s 6-11 versatile forward, guarded Michigan State’s equally athletic big man Adreian Payne, who is also 6-11, last season when Duke won 74-69 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“You’re going to have two excellent basketball teams playing against one another on a huge stage,” Krzyzewski said. “Two of the best programs over the last long period of time, so it’s a big-time game. Their guys are good. Our guys are good.
“It’s going to be an honor being in such an elite game, and hopefully we can do well in it.”
Whichever team wins will play for a Final Four berth on Sunday. In Friday night’s first semifinal, No.2-ranked Louisville (31-5), the region’s top seed, takes on No. 25 Oregon.
The Pac-12 champion Ducks (28-8) entered the tournament as a No. 12 seed but pulled upset wins over fifth-seeded Oklahoma State and fourth-seeded Saint Louis to reach Indianapolis. They’ll join the region’s top three seeds in a star-studded field at Lucas Oil Stadium with three of the game’s elite coaches — Krzyzewski, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
Each of the three has won at least one national championship.
Duke won its fourth NCAA championship, all under Krzyzewski, on its last trip to Lucas Oil Stadium. That came for the 2010 Final Four, where the Blue Devils edged Butler 61-59 in the national championship game.
An Indiana native, Plumlee is happy to be returning to his home state where a lot of friends and family will be in the stands. His older brother, Miles, part of the 2010 title team who now plays for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, won’t be there because the Pacers are on a road trip.
But Duke will feel comfortable in Indianapolis, nevertheless. That doesn’t mean the team expects things to come easily
“I don’t think that’s going to win us the game, good karma,” Plumlee said.
That’s because the Midwest Regional joins the East Regional as the only two in the NCAA Tournament where the top three seeds survived the first weekend.
On Friday, Duke matches up against a well-schooled Michigan State team which Krzyzewski says offers Duke a stern test.
“They play winning basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “They don’t beat themselves and that’s why they’ve had the success they’ve had.”