Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press
In theory, Notre Dame at Michigan State should have been one of the best games of the college basketball season.
It was the AP poll’s No. 5 vs. No. 3 in the featured game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
It was a battle between teams who—last time we saw them in action—wrapped up early-season tournament championships by beating legitimate Final Four contenders (North Carolina and Wichita State).
It was also a borderline unwatchable 81-63 blowout in which the Spartans proved they’re one of two teams who are head and shoulders ahead of everyone else in the country.
Though Notre Dame did make things a little more interesting with a hot start to the second half, this thing was over shortly after it started.
A little over two minutes into the game, Jaren Jackson Jr. blocked a Colson fadeaway jumper and threw an outlet pass to Cassius Winston, who—from half court—lobbed it up to Bridges for an alley-oop dunk.
Words don’t do it justice, so just watch the video.
Al Goldis/Associated Press
There was a lot of highlight-reel action in November, but that was a six-second sequence that summed up what makes Michigan State so dangerous: impenetrable interior defense, impeccable court vision at point guard and impossible-to-guard athleticism on the wings.
If six seconds isn’t enough to convince you of Michigan State’s potential to dominate for the next four months, how about the 10 minutes of nearly flawless basketball it played?
Midway through the first half, Michigan State was already up by 20 points and was on pace to score 124—against a Notre Dame team that had not given up more than 66 points in a game before Thursday. Led by Joshua Langford, the Spartans made 12 of their first 17 shots, did not commit a foul and out-rebounded Notre Dame 12-1.
The Fighting Irish are a great team that’s capable of beating a lot of quality opponents and competing for a title. But the start of this game looked like the Harlem Globetrotters running circles around the Washington Generals.
And there should be a lot of Michigan State games that feel like that, because when the Spartans are firing on all cylinders, there’s only one team in the country capable of beating them.
That would be Duke, which already did beat Michigan State in the Champions Classic.
Duke and Michigan State. Two best teams in country.
Like MSU, Duke has proved capable (multiple times) of putting together ridiculous runs in which the opposing team appears helpless.
In the PK80, Duke was down by 16 in the second half before rallying to defeat Texas. Two nights later, the Blue Devils erased both a 15-point first-half deficit and a 17-point second-half deficit to defeat Florida. In all three instances, it was like Duke somehow made a 12-point bucket to come back in the blink of an eye.
Maybe you view the original deficits as cause for concern, but the proper response to those comebacks is to view Duke as a team that cannot be stopped once it is motivated.
Even in Wednesday night’s back-and-forth affair at Indiana, it never felt like Duke was in danger of losing the game, since it has already become an inevitability that Marvin Bagley III, Grayson Allen and Co. will go on some sort of 25-6 second-half run to remind everyone how much NBA-ready talent the Blue Devils have.
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
These were the top two teams in the preseason AP poll, and based on what they did in November, they ought to be the top two teams heading into the NCAA tournament.
That’s because no team’s “A Game” is in the same layer of the atmosphere as those of Duke and Michigan State.
See if you can come up with an answer for this: Who is the weakest link from these starting lineups?
A week ago, MSU’s Langford likely would have felt like the right answer, and he just averaged 20 points per game in a pair of 18-point wins over North Carolina and Notre Dame. For Duke, I suppose it would be Gary Trent Jr., even though he’s a 96 percent free-throw shooter with arguably the prettiest three-point stroke in this year’s freshman class.
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Now, I’m not saying you should run out to the nearest sportsbook and put half of your life savings on Duke to win the 2018 national championship and put the other half on Michigan State.
For starters, the one-game elimination format of the NCAA tournament favors the hottest teams rather than the best ones, and there’s no telling what kind of momentum these squads will have in March. There are also several other really good teams like Villanova, Kansas and Texas A&M who aren’t going to roll over and die in the presence of the Spartans and Blue Devils.
However, if the NCAA tournament instead consisted of five-game or seven-game series, we’d be talking about a predetermined championship collision course on par with last season’s NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
We’re only three weeks into the season, so these teams aren’t perfect. Michigan State commits far too many turnovers, and Jackson has a frustrating knack of getting into foul trouble. Duke’s man-to-man defense is just plain awful, and Trevon Duval’s jump shot is a catastrophe.
But while the biggest red flags for most teams seem like tire-shredding spike strips destined to destroy their quest for the title, the player talent and coaching prowess on these two teams is so immense that those issues barely even count as speed bumps.
As long as there aren’t any major injuries—or, worse, further FBI fallout impacting either of these teams—Duke and Michigan State should be the two teams to beat for the rest of the season. And if things go according to plan and they meet once again in the national championship, it’s going to be one of the most star-studded, entertaining title games in the history of the sport.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.