Final thoughts from the Champions Classic

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Scott Phillips and I were both in attendance on Tuesday night at the Champions Classic, and while we both wrote plenty of words off of those two games, there was a lot more to discuss that simply couldn’t fit into our stories.

So we put it all here:

Scott: After all of the hype, the Champions Classic is finally over and I’ve got to say that Tuesday night lived up to the hype and so much more, don’t you think, Rob? The crowd was fired up and lively, the freshmen played well and people were reminded of how good Michigan State really is.

I guess we’ll start with Kentucky and Michigan State since it was No. 1 vs. No. 2 and the first game of the night.

(Andrew Wiggins won the Freshmen Showcase)

I’m shocked most at two stats: Michigan State leading Kentucky in fast break points 21-2 and Kentucky outrebounding a Tom Izzo team 44-32?

What do you think those numbers mean going forward and did you have any similar eye-popping numbers that really stood out to you?

Rob: To be honest, I wasn’t all that shocked by the work that Kentucky did on the offensive glass. This team has as much front court depth as we’ve ever seen on one roster, headlined by a freak of nature in Julius Randle. Michigan State? Their biggest issue this season is that their front court behind Adreian Payne is not elite. Matt Costello and Alex Gauna are serviceable against teams that don’t have 25 lottery picks, Branden Dawson is good but undersized, and on Tuesday, Payne was in foul trouble. Do the math. It adds up.

I was surprised by the amount of fast break points Michigan State was able to get, but to me it had more to do with just how bad the Wildcats were in transition. We talked about this at the game. They weren’t hustling back, they gambled for steals, and there was no defensive balance when they were shooting long jumpers. Much of the damage the Spartans did in transition came on run outs and wide-open dunks. It wasn’t like they had the reincarnation of Magic leading the break.

One thing that you mentioned on Tuesday night that really stuck with me was just how good of a job Izzo did game-planning for Kentucky. Packed in defense, anticipating Randle’s spin move, daring Kentucky to shoot. How much of this win belongs to Izzo?

Scott: Good points regarding the rebounding and fast break numbers, Rob. Although Kentucky has more quality size and depth in the front court, it is still shocking to see an Izzo team out rebounded by double digits in any contest.

I think part of the win stems from Izzo’s game plan, part from Michigan State players stepping up and performing and part from Kentucky’s inexperience in big games.

Izzo’s early defensive game plan was fantastic and they did a nice job collapsing on Julius Randle when he got isolation or post touches and between Michigan State’s aggressive switching and Kentucky’s stagnant offensive it was a recipe for early disaster for Kentucky’s offense.

I actually thought Kentucky’s half-court defense wasn’t too bad and they showed a lot of positive signs in that department going forward if they can shore up the transition defense. Kentucky is long and athletic on the defensive end and they also limit second chance opportunities because of their rebounding prowess so they should be okay in that department.

But how about Michigan State’s players stepping up? Izzo can gameplan all he wants but Payne and Harris looked like pros in the first half and nobody in America expected Keith Appling to be the most complete guard in the game with that 22-8-8 line. Heck, even Branden Dawson was a solid x-factor rebounding, running the floor and guarding multiple positions.

Do we see more performances like that from Michigan State’s players — specifically the inconsistent Appling and Payne — or was this an anomaly?

And how do you see Kentucky’s youth growing from here?

Rob: Kentucky will only get better. I thought they were the most likely team to win a national title entering the season, and last time only affirmed that belief.

(Kentucky has the talent. Now they need the time.)

One team that I think I underrated is Kansas. The Jayhawks are going to be a problem, and the biggest reason is Perry Ellis. The dude is going to be a force on the block, and while I think he was in for a big season, I did not think he was going to be as good as he looked on Tuesday. Granted, it is just one game, I know, but if he can be a 15 ppg guy, he makes Kansas a completely different team on the offensive end of the floor, especially if his post game is truly developed and not just a result of going up against a Duke team that doesn’t have a ton on the inside.

Here’s my question: Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker were awesome vs. Kansas. Both looked like lottery picks. Jabari looked like Paul Pierce and Grant Hill had a baby, which is even more terrifying as a theoretical hooper than it would be if they actually had a child.

But I’m concerned about Duke. I thought they’d be better spreading the floor offensively, especially given the new foul rules. But Rasheed Sulaimon was no where to be found, Matt Jones and Tyler Thornton played a ton of minutes while Andre Dawkins was ducktaped to the bench. Amile Jefferson scored some points, but he couldn’t get a rebound if his life depended on it and Perry Ellis abused him like he was Yi Jianlian’s chair.

Does that say more about Duke or about Kansas?

Scott: It says more about Kansas to me. I think we both underestimated the Jayhawks heading into the game and it’s not as if I thought they weren’t talented — they’re loaded — I just didn’t feel like they’d mesh against the talent of Duke this early in the year.

Perry Ellis was a revelation last night and he’s going to be the difference of Kansas’ season going forward. Wiggins will be Wiggins and Kansas has other talent, but if Perry Ellis can get positive post touches it opens up the entire floor for Kansas.

If Ellis commands doubles, or at least the help attention of other defenders, then it opens driving lanes, spaces the floor for shooters and eases things for a freshman center like Joel Embiid.

I know Embiid only had two points and took one of the worst three-point attempts you’re likely to see all season, but he did have five (!) assists as a freshman center and still should be able to finish easy lobs and plays around the rim if defenders are drawn to Ellis. Embiid is only going to improve and so are Kansas’ other young guns.

If Wiggins and Ellis are a consistent 1-2 scoring punch with Selden and the perimeter also playing well, Kansas is going to be really tough to defend.

Which brings me to my question about Duke: Is this team ever going to be able to beat a premier post team or can the Blue Devils shore up their interior defense?

Jabari Parker was a better post defender than I thought — and he rebounds well enough to play the 4 against most teams — but isn’t it going to wear him down if he constantly has to take a beating against a bigger post player while having to create offense on the other end?

(Jabari Parker dazzles the hometown crowd)

Are you worried about Parker’s 3-for-8 second half with a few turnovers and do you think he wore down as the game went on?

Rob: I’m going to go back and rewatch the game this weekend, but I think it had less to do with wearing down than it did with Kansas saying ‘I’m sick of this dude lighting us up’. Wiggins switched on him a bit, which made for a tougher matchup as well.

Duke’s interior defense will be an issue all year long. There’s no way around it. They won’t run into a ton of teams in the ACC with a dominant low-post presence, but I think that it’s more of a red flag than we first realized, particularly when the Blue Devils play an elite team with a talented low-post option. If they switch Marshall Plumlee with one of the other Plumlees, will anyone actually notice?

The bottom-line is this: right now, Michigan State is the best, most complete team in the country. When Keith Appling plays the way he did Tuesday, and Harris and Payne live up to their potential, the Spartans are going to be tough.

But I think what Tuesday night taught us is that there are a number of teams that are no where near finished products just yet. In fact, I’d say that Kentucky, despite the loss, was the most promising. They erased a 15 point deficit to the No. 2 team in the country that had all three of their best players playing well while shooting 20-36 from the foul line, committing 17 turnovers, missing open three after open three and looking somewhat overwhelmed by the moment.

Those errors are fixable. Those problems can be solved with practice, experience and a dose of confidence.

I left Chicago feeling very good about picking Kentucky to win it all.

Two workouts this week could alter Caleb Swanigan’s NBA Draft decision

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Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan has the most important decision among any college basketball player who could return next season from the 2017 NBA Draft process. If Swanigan comes back for his junior season, he’s the frontrunner for National Player of the Year. More importantly, Purdue would have a serious chance to repeat as Big Ten regular season champions, especially if Vince Edwards also returns from the same draft process.

Wednesday night is the decision deadline for players to return to college basketball for next season and Swanigan will use two more workouts scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday to help decide his future. According to multiple reports, Swanigan will workout for the Orlando Magic on Tuesday and the New York Knicks on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s workout with the Magic will also reportedly involve Cal big man Ivan Rabb — an important workout for Swanigan since Rabb is listed ahead of Swanigan on a lot of popular mock drafts. The Magic own three picks between No. 25 and No. 35 — which is listed slightly above the No. 40 slot that Draft Express has Swanigan listed. So if Swanigan has a good workout against Rabb for the Magic, then he could get himself some sort of guarantee from a Magic team that desperately needs talent and has a lot of picks in that range.

The Knicks also have Swanigan scheduled for a Wednesday workout as they own the No. 44 overall pick in the second round. Again, the Knicks are a team in win-now mode with current stars like Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis openly feuding with the team’s front-office, so it wouldn’t be out of the question for Swanigan to land some sort of guarantee from New York in the second round.

Of course, guarantees for draft night are nice to have, but things can change quickly on draft night. Swanigan has to consider all of the information he is receiving before he makes his decision on Wednesday. But if Swanigan has two strong workouts and gets the information that he’s looking for this week, then he could easily bolt for a potential guaranteed contract.

Angel Delgado’s return to Seton Hall makes Pirates Big East contender

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Seton Hall got huge news on Monday when Angel Delgado announced that he would be returning to school for his senior season.

“I am coming back to school for my senior year,” Delgado said in a statement on Monday. “It’s very important to my family and me that I finish what I started. This was a difficult decision that took time and patience. Coming back feels just right.”

Delgado, a 6-foot-10 forward from the Dominican Republic, averaged 15.1 points and 13.2 boards last season for the Pirates. He was one of the best big men in the country over the last six weeks of the season.

And his return should bring about one of the best years that Seton Hall basketball has had in a long time.

The Pirates are loaded with talent, tough and, most importantly, old players, from Delgado to Khadeen Carrington to Ishmael Sanogo to Desi Rodriguez. They are going to be a nightmare to run offense against, and they may just be the best team in the Big East not named Villanova. Delgado should end up being a preseason all-american.

Seton Hall is currently ranked No. 17 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Texas to return Andrew Jones for sophomore season

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Texas got another boost on Monday as former five-star recruit Andrew Jones announced that he will be returning to school for his sophomore season.

“I’ve matured and learned a lot through this process,” Jones said in a statement released on twitter. “I enjoyed the experience and opportunity that I had to be able to participate in the combine and team workouts.

“Time to go work out with my teammates. Hungry and Humble.”

This comes on the heels of Texas landing a commitment from a top five prospect in Mo Bamba. With all those pieces in the fold, including a recruiting class that features four more top 100 prospects, the Longhorns look like they are on track to be a borderline preseason top 25 team and heading back to the NCAA tournament.

This could end up being a narrative-changing year for Texas.

West Virginia returns potential Big 12 Player of the Year in Jevon Carter

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West Virginia got some great news on Monday as Jevon Carter announced that he will be returning to the Mountaineers for his senior year.

“I’m excited about coming back to West Virginia and playing with my teammates for my senior season,” he said. “The entire NBA process was a great experience for me and to gain valuable feedback that I can use to prepare for the future.”

This is massive for the Mountaineers. Not only is Carter the team’s leading scorer at 13.5 points, but he is a three-time all-Big 12 Defensive Team member and led West Virginia in minutes played last season. He’ll be a favorite to win Big 12 Player of the Year, with Devonte’ Graham of Kansas.

Arizona adds five-star Emmanuel Akot to Class of 2017

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Emmanuel Akot, a five-star wing that has been committed to Arizona for months, announced on Monday that he will be reclassifying to the Class of 2017 and enrolling at Arizona this offseason.

“My family and I have decided to join the 2017 class and become a member of the Arizona Basketball family,” Akot said.

Akot was considered a top 15 prospect in the Class of 2018, a class that many believe to be significantly weaker than the Class of 2017. At 6-foot-7, he’s a versatile defender with quite a bit of potential that can step out and knock down threes, but he’s also far from a finish product and will likely need time to acclimate to the college level.

That said, he should be able to fill a role on the wing nicely, providing a nice bit of defensive reliance alongside more offensive-minded weapons like Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins.

Akot joins a five-man recruiting class headlined by top four prospect Deandre Ayton and four-star recruits Brandon Randolph and Ira Lee.