No. 10 Arizona knocked off No. 12 Michigan State in a thriller to kick off the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu on Friday night. Kadeem Allen was the hero, as he went coast-to-coast for a layup with 1.9 seconds left to give the Wildcats a 65-63 win:
Allen’s game-winner came after Michigan State point guard Tum Tum Nairn hit a game-tying three that bounced off the back of the rim and somehow found its way through the net with 7.0 seconds left.
Michigan State opened up the game on a 17-2 run and looked like they were going to steamroll the under-manned Wildcats, but some hot-shooting from Kobi Simmons, who had 12 of his 18 points in the first half, earned Arizona the lead back. Lauri Markkanen added 13 points and six boards for Arizona and show off the skill-set of a player that is earning NBA Draft lottery hype.
The best player on the floor was Miles Bridges, who had 21 points and a quartet of rim-rattling dunks. He was exactly the player that we all expected to see this season: terrifying athletic, skilled with the ball in his hands but his questionable shooting and decision-making makes it quite evident that he is still a freshman.
If we’re being frank, the major takeaway from this game is that neither of these teams are anything close to a finished product. For the Wildcats, that should come as no surprise. They played this game without Allonzo Trier, who is still dealing with an eligibility issue that the program has yet to comment on. His ability to create offense out of nothing is exactly what this Arizona team needs. As talented as Simmons and Markkanen looked – and as good of a scorer as we know Rawle Alkins can be – those three are all freshmen and all, for the most part, guys known more for their potential than their ability.
That’s a good sign for Arizona, by the way. Those three are going to get better as the season moves along.
The red flags for Michigan State are different. We had concerns about their front court and their point guard play entering the year and nothing that happened on Friday assuaged any of those concerns. Nick Ward had some moments, but he finished with just nine points and four boards on Friday. Kenny Goins had eight boards, but he also tweaked his left knee.
Meanwhile, Tum Tum finished with five points (including the prayer in the final seconds), four assists and four turnovers while Cassius Winston went scoreless with three assists and two turnovers. As a team, the Spartans had just 15 assists to 17 turnovers. Aesthetically, it wasn’t much better, as the Spartans looked lost on the offensive end of the floor for basically the entire game after that early run.
We knew what we were getting with these two teams. They’re both young, missing key pieces and playing their first game of the season. But I’m not quite sure I was prepared for just how far these teams have to go.
POSTERIZED: Josh Hart shows why he’s an all-american
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Breaking out as an offensive contributor has spurred Kentucky forward Derek Willis to want to have the same impact on the defensive end.
Lost in the shuffle for two years behind a parade of future NBA draft picks, the 6-foot-9 Willis earned his way into Kentucky’s rotation as a junior and finally showed the talent that coach John Calipari had insisted was always there.
Willis is a projected starter as the second-ranked Wildcats open Friday night against Stephen F. Austin with another roster of young talent. The confidence in his shooting during the preseason – along with a willingness to fight for rebounds – figures to make him a part of Calipari’s developing rotations.
“I feel like I really know my role, and there are things I still need to work on,” said Willis, who averaged career bests of 7.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 18.6 minutes with 11 starts last season. “Once I figure this out, I’ll help this team out even more than I have.”
Willis seems self-assured enough to turn heads in practice with intense play and even offer a suggestion to Calipari.
Calipari recalled a moment when Willis reminded him of something he wasn’t doing in the zone offense, a point the coach acknowledged before changing the play and thanking him.
“Last year, he would never have done that,” Calipari said. “That just shows you he’s maturing, that he’s able to trust enough that he can give a suggestion and know it’s not going to be thrown (back) at me.”
Having established himself as a perimeter threat – he ranked third on the team with 53 3-pointers on 44 percent shooting – the Mt. Washington, Kentucky, native appears comfortable inside. He’s going harder at the rim on both ends and contesting shots more along with diving for loose balls.
“He’s coming in and just fighting for everything,” 6-10 redshirt freshman forward Tai Wynyard said.
Willis’ growing confidence has been most evident in the way he has challenged defenders and shooters and given them a hard look after a physical play.
“That’s how I’ve needed to play,” Willis said, referring to a summer of studying video of his play. “I can stretch the court, but rebounding and just playing defense and making sure my guy doesn’t score more than me is important.”
Willis’ focus on defense is important as Calipari teaches the finer points of that aspect to on frontcourt newcomers Bam Adebayo and Sacha Killeya-Jones – both 6-10- and 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel. After lacking a physical post game last season , Calipari has made that a point this season and is depending on veterans such as Willis to set the tone.
Wynyard praised the senior’s mental preparation, which might be even more critical with a season-opening stretch of three games in five days, including Tuesday’s matchup against No. 12 Michigan State in New York City. As Kentucky’s freshmen learn to play together and prepare for the first of many marquee non-conference games, they will look to Willis, fellow senior Dominique Hawkins and sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe for guidance.
All have embraced the responsibility with Willis in particular pulling teammates together for huddles. He sees that as a natural role for a veteran, especially since he has personal examples to draw from.
“Even last year, I could see that role developing for me,” Willis said. “So now, wherever I’m needed, I’m talking.”
No. 10 Arizona vs. No. 12 Michigan State, 7:00 p.m.
This game has a ‘what could have been’ feel to it. Arizona will reportedly be without Allonzo Trier and Chance Comanche due to various suspensions while Ray Smith tore his ACL for the third time last week. Michigan State is playing without its two best big men due to knee injuries. What that means is that two of the best coaches in college basketball will be leading teams that are extremely freshmen-dependent.
Miles Bridges should be the best player on the floor. The Spartan freshman is an uber-athletic, 6-foot-7 combo-forward whose ability to play multiple positions is the biggest reason why folks aren’t that concerned about Michigan State’s depth question marks. Arizona doesn’t have an answer for him, either, not with Smith out of the lineup. The big question with the Wildcats is whether or not Lauri Markkanen, a Finnish seven-footer and potential lottery pick, will be the best player for Arizona or if shot-happy freshmen Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins will dominate the ball.
Indiana’s first test in the post-Yogi Ferrell era will be a doozy. We know that the Hoosiers are going to have some issues handling the ball this season with Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk running the point, and running into Kansas in the season-opener is about as close to a worst-case scenario as you can get. The Jayhawks have one of the best defensive perimeters in the country with Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson, and the Hoosiers lack the talent offensively to be able to create their own shots.
The most interesting matchup of the weekend will be in this game, as Josh Jackson, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 Draft, will go up against O.G. Anunoby, a potential lottery pick. Both are elite defenders that are still learning how to play on the other end of the floor, so don’t be surprised to see both of them somewhat limited on Friday.
THIS WEEKEND’S UPSET WATCH
No. 8 Virginia at UNC Greensboro, Fri. 7:00 p.m.: The Cavaliers open the season on the road without Austin Nichols, who is the low-post scoring force and shot-blocking presence that Tony Bennett brought in to replace Anthony Gill. UVA will be looking to transition to a season without Malcolm Brogdon while facing a veteran team that returns four starters and won 10 league games last season.
Chattanooga at No. 6 North Carolina, Sun. 5:00 p.m.: The Mocs were one of the nation’s best mid-major programs last season, and not only do they return essentially everyone from that team, they get Casey Jones back; Jones was the best player in the SoCon in 2014-15 before an injury cost him last season. The Tar Heels? They place twice this weekend and will be in New Orleans to take on Tulane on Friday night.
Chattanooga, who won at Georgia, Illinois and Dayton last season, will also pay a visit to Tennessee on Friday night.
Lehigh at No. 7 Xavier, Fri. 7:00 p.m.: Xavier is loaded. No one is arguing that. But they’ll be without Myles Davis and Kaiser Gates in the opener while hosting a Lehigh team that will contend for the Patriot and features Tim Kempton, one of the best mid-major players in the country.
SEVEN MORE GAMES TO WATCH
Nevada at No. 23 Saint Mary’s, Fri. 11:00 p.m.: Part of the reason the Gaels missed out on the NCAA tournament last season was that they didn’t do enough in the non-conference. Nevada may be the second-best team in the MWC. They also have an NBA-caliber big man in Cam Oliver.
Vanderbilt vs. Marquette, Fri. 6:30 p.m.: The Bryce Drew era at Vandy kicks off with a trip to Annapolis for the Veterans Classic.
South Dakota State at Cal, Fri. 10:00 p.m.: There should be plenty of NBA scouts in attendance here as Ivan Rabb, the best center in America, takes on Mike Daum, the best mid-major center in America.
Georgia at Clemson, Fri. 7:00 p.m.: Both Georgia and Clemson could use this win as both seem like they are headed towards the bubble for this season. Jaron Blossomgame of Clemson is one of the best players in the ACC.
FGCU vs. Florida, Fri. 7:30 p.m.: This is going to be the year that we make a judgement on whether or not Mike White is ready to coach at this level. Florida has the pieces to be a good team.
Harvard at Stanford, Fri. 11:00 p.m.: The first game that Siyani Chambers plays after tearing his ACL will be a road trip out west to take on the Cardinal.
Montana at USC, Fri. 11:00 p.m.: Montana is always one of the best mid-major programs out west, while USC is a young team that will have a number of new players in larger roles.
FIVE STORY LINES TO KEEP AN EYE ON
How healthy is E.C. Matthews?: Matthews is coming off of a torn ACL. In 2014-15, when he was healthy, Rhode Island was 23-10 and Matthews was the team’s leading scorer and highest-usage offensive weapon. Last season, Matthews played ten minutes before popping his ACL and the Rams eventually went 17-15. It’s not a direct correlation, but it is safe to say that the Rams will not reach their ceiling without a healthy Matthews. They host Dartmouth on Friday night.
Does Lonzo Ball fit with Bryce Alford and the rest of the Bruins?: UCLA gets two games this weekend, as they host Pacific and CSUN. Neither of those two programs look like they’ll have a real shot to get to the NCAA tournament this season, but they should give us a glimpse into how Steve Alford is going to handle his team this year. Who is running the point? How good will they be defensively? What’s his rotation look like? How will Ball be used?
How many shots does Malik Monk take and what is Kentucky’s rotation?: Like UCLA, Kentucky has a pair of games this weekend, hosting Stephen F. Austin on Friday and Canisius on Sunday. Monk’s ability to fit within a system and a team that has as much talent as Kentucky is a major question mark, particularly with a trip to NYC for the Champions Classic coming up. It will also be interesting to see how Coach Cal uses his rotations and what lineups he opts to trot out.
So how good are the Louisville players we thought would “breakout”?: The big story line with Louisville this offseason was that they’ll have a chance to be excellent this year because Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and Ray Spalding are going to take a major step forward. We’ll get our first look into finding out just how big that step forward truly is this weekend.
Do Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr. look like they’ll live up to the hype?: There’s a chance that these two guys could end up being the top two picks in the 2017 NBA Draft. They’ll get their first real collegiate action this weekend. With all the hype that goes into the elite freshmen these days, it will be interesting to see if they can live up to it.