The march to madness officially began last week, but Tuesday’s Champions Classic is when the season really tipped off, at least for Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State. This annual tradition, started in 2011, features a back to back of 4 marquee programs in men’s college basketball. This year Duke took on MSU, with basketball’s two most winningest programs facing off in the evening. Both games were significant, even this early in the season, because these teams can take away a lot from playing this stiff competition.
Duke and Michigan State was the early game, and featured two future Hall of Fame coaches with two top 20 ranked teams. Duke recovered from losing Jabari Parker to the NBA draft. It now boasts the top recruiting class in the country, featuring Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen, along with key cogs from last year’s team, including Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon. Michigan State, however, lost starters Adrian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling, but brought back leaders Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and got Branden Dawson back from a broken hand. While Duke is ranked significantly higher, the rivalry between the two has been raging for over the past decade and this game was shaping up to be a good one.
For Duke, who was coming off of wins by 69 and 50 points, confidence was high and it showed. For the game they shot a scorching 54 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep, carving open MSU’s defense to the tune of 81 points on only 50 shot attempts. While Quinn Cook led the way with 19 points and 6 assists, the story of the game was the freshman class, who combined for 49 of Duke’s points and hit big shots all night. Jahlil Okafor hit his first four shots (ended up 8 for 10), displayed great poise and footwork, dished out two assists and two more hockey assists to a cutting Tyus Jones and a Cook three-point shot. He played like the top player of his recruiting class all night long. Winslow and Jones similarly played like seasoned veterans, hitting big shots all night and playing aggressive defense on MSU’s seniors.
This game marked a new phase of Duke basketball, away from the guard dominated, small ball that relied on being able to nail 15 three-pointers a game. In fact, Duke made 20 free throws while only attempting 14 three-pointers. They were clearly the aggressor all night, forcing the ball to Okafor in the post, pushing the ball down the court in transition and allowing Jones and Winslow reign to take their men off the dribble. That being said, they still allowed MSU to score 71 points, despite playing most of the first half without Dawson, Valentine and Clark with fouls, and were outrebounded by 11, including allowing 12 offensive rebounds. Duke is going to need to clean up their glass work if they want to make a run in March, and cannot allow teams to shoot 50 percent from the floor like this. They still seem set for a dominant season, but playing MSU did highlight these key deficiencies.
Tom Izzo’s MSU squad cannot be too content with this win, as it goes against their nature as a program; however they should take heart at the nature of the game. They scrapped and fought back against a more talented Duke team, and whenever Duke made a run, to extend the lead to eight or ten points, Valentine or Trice would hit a three-pointer and pull the game back. This team lacks depth and size, however they make up for it with fight and hustle. Branden Dawson is back with a vengeance, and Trice and Valentine have shown themselves to be leaders in action as well as words. Come the end of the season, they should contend for a top 15 ranking and be a tough out come March as they wait for their more impressive 2015 recruiting class.
Kentucky against Kansas was billed to be the marquee game of the night, featuring two top 5 ranked teams (at number 1 and 5 respectively). Bill Self and John Calipari are modern legends, with Kansas having won 10 straight Big-12 regular seasons and Kentucky having been to 3 Final Fours in the 6 years that Calipari has coached. Kentucky was the favorite coming in, but I don’t think anyone expected the massacre that would ensue.
Kentucky scored 72 points. Kansas scored 40. In fact Kansas scored 2 points more in total than Kentucky did in the first half. Kentucky had 11 blocked shots, Kansas had 11 made field goals. Kansas shot 11-for-56 from the field, 3-15 from three-point range and only 15-27 from the free throw line. All night Kansas would shy away from the larger Kentucky defenders, fading and contorting to force up difficult shots while Kentucky played like men amongst boys. This game was over 10 minutes into the first half.
Kentucky played like the number one overall team, and showed a lot about their strengths and potential pitfalls. They have enough talent on the roster that instead of a normal rotation, they use two “platoons” of five players each that rotate as entire units, and nine out of the ten players on these platoons are taller than 6’6”. They are a ridiculously athletic and balanced team that will dominate smaller teams on the boards and in the paint. In fact, the cliché of a team with this much talent being unable to spread the wealth seemed laughable, as only two players on either team scored more than ten points, both on Kentucky, and 11 players scored at least once in each half for Kentucky. They’re balanced, they’re talented, they’re tall and they’re starting four players who played in last season’s Championship game. They appear to be this year’s team to beat.
It’s hard to tell much, if anything, from this game. Kansas will most likely end up being one of the best teams in the nation come the end of the season and will make a run in the tournament, despite no obvious NBA talent. They played with heart in this game, especially in the first half, cutting a 35-17 deficit into just a 10 point game (38-28) at the half and playing aggressively into the Kentucky defenders. They even grabbed more offensive rebounds than the Wildcats, despite their size. However, they weren’t able to capitalize on the second chances, shooting below 20% from the floor. Although they are well coached, talented and well lead by Kelly Ouber and Cliff Alexander, they just were not a match for the talent, length and depth that Kentucky displayed.
· Duke: Temple on November 21
· Michigan State: Loyola (IL) on November 21
· Kentucky: Boston University on November 21
· Kansas: Rider on the November 24