- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State is physical.
Michigan State is tough.
Michigan State is athletic.
That's the three-verse mantra Duke players heard for the past week, the implication obvious in what was left unsaid: Namely, that the Blue Devils were not any of those things.
Perhaps now that Duke is in the Elite Eight, perhaps now that it's won back-to-back games not on the beauty of its offense but on the back of its defense, and perhaps now that Duke has disposed rather handily of the more physical, tougher and more athletic Spartans, 71-61, people will write another verse to this old, tired song.
From Laettner to Hurley to Battier to Singler to Plumlee to Curry, the narrative on the Blue Devils never changes, even if the tale becomes more and more fictionalized over the years. Certain teams are bequeathed with certain adjectives, and to the popular (and misguided) way of thinking, Duke will never be confused with the Spartans.
"I don't really care what people say about us,'' Ryan Kelly said. "As long as we're winning, people can say whatever they want.''
That's partially true -- the not caring bit -- but only partially. A breath earlier, Kelly talked about how his team was much maligned -- and rightly so -- for its lack of defensive presence last season and how that tag really stung the Blue Devils.
Over the summer and through the season, he said, Duke made defense a priority -- not to conjure up the slap-the-floor version, but the sort that pays attention to little things.
Duke does have some deficiencies. Kelly, for example, agreed with the assessment that the Devils aren't as athletic as other teams. But they vowed to overcome their shortcomings with hard work and proper game planning. Those two things met in a beautifully brutal intersection for Duke on Friday night.
By themselves, nobody on Duke's roster was going to stop Derrick Nix. But combined, with double teams sent his way every time Nix touched the ball, it worked wonders. Nix shot 3-of-10 from the floor, as did his big-boy counterpart Adreian Payne.
Equally critical, a Michigan State team that was plus-23 in rebounding in its first two NCAA games was a measly plus-four against the Devils.
"I think it worked well for us tonight, because we did it by committee,'' Plumlee said. "We got balls in scrums. We had multiple guards down there on the defensive boards. We knew we couldn't really run until we got the ball, but our guards did a good job of getting down in there and coming up with loose balls and rebounds that were getting bounced around.''
The only time the Blue Devils eased up on the defensive end is when they took some time to stop and admire the view while Seth Curry buried the Spartans. The senior scorched Michigan State with 29 points, nine of which came in a two-minute barrage to start the second half.
Curry drained three consecutive 3-pointers, helping Duke push a one-point halftime lead into a cushion big enough to last the rest of the game.
Yet when Mike Krzyzewski called timeout after the third make, it wasn't to pat Curry on the back and tell him good job.
"Seth was scoring on every possession, and it was almost like we felt like we could relax on defense,'' Krzyzewski said. "And when you get a guy hot like that, and you can put a couple defensive stops with it, then you're going to get separation. And we weren't doing that. So it was basically to remind them this kid is not going to be able to do this the whole second half. But while he is, let's pick up the intensity on the defensive end."
It's worth noting that Michigan State didn't score again until three full minutes after that timeout.
"When you see a guy like that, who's won so many games, so fired up because he wants to win so much, you can't help but be inspired,'' Kelly said.
Not that the Devils weren't inspired before. They didn't go so far as to say -- or even imply -- that all the talk about Michigan State and its he-man attributes made for great bulletin board material, but let's just say they were aware of it.
"Coming into the game, everyone was talking about how physical they were, how tough they were and all that stuff,'' Curry said. "We took that challenge.''
Perhaps now everyone will take notice.
And maybe even get the Devils their due.