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Spartans cramming for test against Duke freshmen

Michigan State's Travis Trice looks up after the

Michigan State's Travis Trice looks up after the regional final against Louisville in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Sunday, March 29, 2015, in Syracuse, N.Y. Credit: AP / Nick Lisi

INDIANAPOLIS - Most of Michigan State's attention will be focused on Duke big man Jahlil Okafor when the Spartans (27-11) face the Blue Devils (33-4) in the opening national semifinal Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. It only makes sense for defenses to gang up on the 6-11, 270-pound Okafor, who is a potential No. 1 NBA draft pick because he's so hard to contain under the basket.

But if the Spartans don't watch out, Justise Winslow, the other half of Duke's 1-2 freshman punch, could take them out.

In the course of the NCAA Tournament, the 6-6 Winslow has been as impressive as Okafor because of his versatility on offense and defense, playing his way toward the top of the NBA draft lottery.

Asked Friday to describe his role for the Blue Devils, Winslow said: "I don't really believe in positions. What position is LeBron? You could ask that question."

The fact is, he's simply a player averaging 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals for the season and shooting 48.5 percent from the field. In four NCAA games, Winslow's numbers are up to 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists, and he's taking advantage of all the attention Okafor has been getting.

"It's great playing with Jah, the way he's able to dominate a game down on the low block," Winslow said. "He's different than a lot of big men nowadays. He pretty much just stays on the block.

"It makes the game a lot easier playing with a big man as dominant as Jah. A lot of times, he's getting double-teamed and I get open three-point shots or open drives. Or when I drive, the big man is scared to help off Jah. It just makes the game so much easier for myself and the whole team when you have somebody who commands that much attention."

Coach Mike Krzyzewski has adapted to the one-and-done trend in college basketball, starting freshmen Okafor, Winslow and Tyus Jones, all of whom are first-round candidates. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo paid his respects to those three but said of senior point guard Quinn Cook, "My MVP of that team is Cook."

Maybe so, but Izzo plans to put his best athlete, power forward Branden Dawson, on Winslow. "Winslow's a good player," Dawson said. "He plays with a lot of poise. I think it's going to be a great matchup."

Winslow had 15 points and six rebounds in Duke's 81-71 win over the Spartans in November. At midseason, however, his play leveled off. He suffered a rib injury and was held scoreless in 10 minutes in January at Madison Square Garden when Duke defeated St. John's to give Coach K his record 1,000th Division I victory.

"That was the first game back from my injury, and it probably was when I was in the most pain," Winslow said.

But his confidence didn't suffer, only his production. That has changed as the importance of the games has grown in March and April. "My whole mind-set changed," Winslow said. "I'm being more aggressive because I know my team needs me to be aggressive in order to win.

"We came here to win a national championship. So whatever happens in the future happens, but right now, we're just focused on winning this game against Michigan State and trying to move on to the next one."

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