Champions Classic

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Frank Jackson #15 of the Duke Blue Devils drives in the lane against Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks in the first half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

No. 1 Duke’s loss to No. 7 Kansas cemented their status as title favorite

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NEW YORK — Just give them the damn title.

It sounds weird saying that when the No. 1 team in the country lost, 77-75, on a neutral floor to a team that was already 0-1 on the season, but I just don’t understand how you could have watched Duke erase a double-digit second half deficit to force Frank Mason’s heroics and come away feeling any other way.

Duke was playing without Harry Giles III, who likely won’t be available until ACC play, if at all. They were without Jayson Tatum. They were without Marques Bolden. That’s two of the five most talented players in the country and, in total, three likely lottery picks come June’s NBA Draft.

But there’s more.

Duke played just six guys on Tuesday night in the Garden, and the best player that’s actually able to suit up for the Blue Devils – Grayson Allen, who was the most popular pick for Preseason National Player of the Year – was bad. He finished with 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting and never really seemed to get into the game until the final minutes.

“Grayson had a frustrating game,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You can’t expect to get fouled. I think he’s going to a point where he makes a move and it’s a good move and he expects a foul.”

“He’s playing hard when he gets the ball, but he needs to play harder when he doesn’t have the ball, which is what he did in the last few minutes.”

And despite all of that, Duke still led Kansas heading into halftime and still managed to scrap back from a 67-57 deficit with less than five minutes left on the clock.

“We’re a good team otherwise we’d get blown out of here tonight,” Coach K said. “But we’re a limited team right now. We’re not who we imagined ourselves to be. That’s not an excuse, it’s just the way it is. We’ll see what happens when we get guys back.”

It is still unclear when that is going to be. Duke is going to be in no hurry to bring Giles back, not when his earning power could disintegrate if he suffered another knee injury this year. Neither Tatum nor Bolden are dealing with serious injuries – Tatum has a sprained foot and Bolden has what Duke terms a “lower leg injury” – but initial reports said both of them should have been available on Tuesday night.

But ironically enough, having those three sidelined for the Champions Classic may have been the best thing for the Blue Devils, because Coach K now knows what he has in Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson and, frankly, Chase Jeter.

Kennard was the best player on the floor for the Blue Devils. He finished with 22 points, five boards and five assists and was responsible for 15 of Duke’s points – three buckets and three threes that he assisted on – in a 20-10 run that tied the game at 75 with 30 seconds left.

“He had a really good game tonight,” Coach K said. “He’s played really well. He’s played well in every practice. He’s a really good player. We expected him to be really good. I wouldn’t say he’s overachieved because he’s a big time player, and big time players show up in these environments.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts against the Kansas Jayhawks in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Jackson also stepped up and made two huge shots in the final minutes after what was overall a pretty disappointing game for him. His four-point play with three minutes left kept Duke within one possession of the Jayhawks, and he followed that up by hitting the three that tied the game with 22 seconds left, setting up Mason’s game-winner.

Through the season’s first two games, Jackson was arguably Duke’s best player, averaging 19.5 points off the bench. He looked somewhat overmatched for the first 35 minutes on Tuesday night, but that happens to freshmen playing their first game with this kind of spotlight and pressure. The fact that he stepped up and made two critical shots that gave the Blue Devils a chance to win the game is far more important than the off-night that he had.

The same can be said for Jeter, whose stat-line – seven points, four boards and three blocks but three turnovers, four fouls and a 5-for-10 night from the line after missing a couple layups – isn’t as impressive as the impression he made on Coach K.

“I thought this was a big game for Chase,” he said. “There were a couple times he didn’t finish, but I thought he played hard and well.”

“You learn a lot from being in this level of a game,” Coach K added, and that’s what really matters here.

Assuming Duke finds a way to get back to 100 percent health, Kennard and Jackson will probably end up being Duke’s fifth and sixth scoring options. They’ll likely split minutes and find themselves in a similar position to where Allen found himself as a freshman. And when Allen was a freshman, he spent the majority of the year on the bench before exploding in the Final Four to average 13.5 points and spark the title-game run that eventually won the Blue Devils the 2015 national title.

“I thought overall it was a great experience for us,” Coach K said. “They’re going to be one of the best teams in the country throughout the whole year. To play that way when a couple of our veterans didn’t have a good game tonight? It was good for us.”

After Tuesday night, not only does Coach K know that he has those two weapons in his back pocket, but he knows that both Kennard and Jackson have the confidence to be able to succeed in the biggest moments.

If they can lead a short-handed, struggling Duke team back from 10 points down in MSG against a top five team that some – Hi! – have picked to win the national, then what can’t they be trusted to do?

Final thoughts from the Champions Classic

State Farm Champions Classic - Michigan State v Kentucky
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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.

Dan Patrick Show: Has the student-athlete become extinct? (VIDEO)

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Ever since the NBA changed its rules regarding early entries, requiring prospects to be at least one year removed from high school before being eligible to enter the NBA Draft, many have debated whether or not these prospects are “truly” student-athletes. Dan Patrick discussed the topic on the Dan Patrick Show this morning, just hours after some of the best freshmen in the country played in the Champions Classic in Chicago.

Jabari Parker dazzles national audience, but still a step behind Andrew Wiggins

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CHICAGO — Jabari Parker seemed distracted as he wandered the nearly empty United Center hallway to the team bus after Duke’s 94-83 loss to Kansas in the second game of Tuesday night’s State Farm Champions Classic.

You could hardly blame Parker for seeming out of it. The 6-foot-9 freshman phenom created a national buzz on Tuesday night by scoring 27 points while hauling down nine rebounds in the first major game of his college career — and second college game overall — and it came in his hometown of Chicago against No. 5 Kansas and the projected No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins vs. Parker has been a hot topic of discussion since the two were elite high school prospects and Tuesday gave the duo a chance for a clash on a national stage.

While Wiggins spent much of the first half in foul trouble, Parker started out hot, knocking down 6-of-10 field goals and 4-of-5 three-pointers in the first half on his way to 19 points by the break. But in the second half, Parker was clearly a bit tired and the Jayhawks threw multiple bodies at him to try to stop him, including Wiggins for a few possessions.

Parker finished 9-for-18 from the field and 4-for-7 from three-point range in 33 minutes before fouling out with 1:16 left to play. Wiggins tallied 22 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes but also earned the victory for his team.

The talk of Wiggins vs. Parker — and their future status as likely top NBA draft picks — dominated the headlines before, during and after a game that still featured two top-five teams and numerous other McDonald’s All-Americans, but Wiggins and Parker belong to college basketball for at least the next few months and the only thing that really mattered to them was Kansas beating Duke in a hard-fought, early-season game.

“Our names on our jerseys don’t say ‘Parker’ and ‘Wiggins’ it says ‘Kansas’ and ‘Duke,'” Wiggins said after the game. “At the end of the day, one team is going to win, not one player.”

A four-time Illinois Class 4A state champion at Simeon Career Academy on the Southside of Chicago, Parker isn’t accustomed to losing and clearly felt the emotion of the big night in his hometown. As the Blue Devils waited to take the United Center floor before the game, Parker stood in the tunnel with his teammates as Magic Johnson walked by and gave Duke some words of encouragement.

Clearly, this wasn’t your typical November college hoops battle.

“I think it’s remarkable that a kid that’s 18 can come in here during his second game…. in his hometown and playing against Kansas and he was sensational,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Imagine the emotion that you use? He wasn’t just worn out towards the end because of the way the game was played, I think he was emotioned out. He was terrific and that’s how you grow. I thought he handled everything well.”

As an undersized team facing Kansas’ length and athleticism on the interior, Duke also counted on Parker to defend in the post — something Jabari is getting used to at the college level — and he also paced the Blue Devils with nine rebounds.

“(Jabari) did a good job; they’re tough in the post. That’s what they’ve done the entire time that Bill has been there, is really strong low-post play,” Krzyzewski said of Parker’s post defense. “I think Jabari wore them down a little bit too. It’s how you punch; it’s how you counter. I thought Jabari did a great job.”

Both teams downplayed the individual matchup of Wiggins and Parker in favor of Duke versus Kansas, but with an estimated 70-plus NBA people in attendance at the United Center and the buzz of basketball fans across the country fixated on the matchup of the freshman phenoms, its hard not to focus on Wiggins vs. Parker as the night’s major storyline.

As Wiggins raced down the open floor for a dunk that put the Jayhawks ahead 87-81 with 1:16 left, Parker was the one to foul him on the play giving chase and was disqualified from the game with his fifth foul.

The play symbolized what America learned after Tuesday’s Champions Classic: Wiggins is still a half-step ahead of Parker for now, but the battle is much closer than many people had anticipated.

The sold-out United Center’s frenzied atmosphere made the Champions Classic feel a bit like March, but there are still four more months until we find out any real answers to the “Wiggins vs. Parker” debate.

If Tuesday night’s matchup was any indication, college basketball fans are going to have a lot of fun figuring out the answer.

Champions Classic: Kansas outlasts Duke

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CHICAGO — America certainly got what it wanted in the second game of Tuesday Night’s State Farm Champions Classic: A close game between No. 4 Duke and No. 5 Kansas that saw two of the country’s top freshmen square off.

Both Kansas freshman forward Andrew Wiggins and Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker have entered college basketball with an insane amount of preseason hype and in their first major collegiate game, they each came away impressive showings.

Parker, in front of his hometown of Chicago, finished with 27 points and nine rebounds while Wiggins, and the Jayhawks, got the last laugh, finishing with 22 points and eight rebounds as he scored on a step-back jumper with 1:30 remaining and followed that up with an open-court dunk that drew Parker’s fifth foul and gave Kansas the 87-81 lead with 1:11 remaining as the Jayhawks held on for the 94-83 win.

Parker, who buried 4-of-5 first-half three-pointers and set the tone early, helped Duke to an early 42-40 halftime lead, but Kansas relied on their size, depth and athleticism to outlast the Blue Devils.

Sophomore forward Perry Ellis came up big for the Jayhawks, scoring 24 points and adding nine rebounds, while at lead guard — a question spot for the Jayhawks — junior Naadir Tharpe (seven points, five assists) and freshman Frank Mason (15 points) combined for only three turnovers between them. Freshman guard Wayne Selden also had 15 for the Jayhawks.

Kansas outrebounded the undersized Blue Devils 39-24.

Amile Jefferson scored 17 points for Duke to contribute in the scoring column and Rasheed Sulaimon (13 points), Rodney Hood (11 points) and Quinn Cook (10 points) also finished in double-figures.

The Blue Devils can score in many different ways, but they’ll need to shore up their interior defense and rebounding in order to beat elite teams that future a post presence.

Kansas can build on this early win and should be thrilled by performances off the bench by guys like Mason and freshman forward Brannen Greene (eight points).

Joel Embiid also had trouble scoring for Kansas with only two points, but contributed seven rebounds and five assists.

Champions Classic: Appling and Michigan State use experience to top Kentucky

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CHICAGO — The matchup of No. 1 Kentucky against No. 2 Michigan State was the much-anticipated “undercard” of Tuesday night’s State Farm Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago, but for Michigan State and head coach Tom Izzo it was a chance to make an early-season statement.

While many fans — and the estimated 70-plus NBA scouts in attendance in the United Center — were fixated on the latest crop of “one-and-done” freshmen, the experienced Spartans threw the first haymaker of the night and landed it squarely on the jaw of Big Blue Nation.

“We wanted to keep putting them on the ropes,” Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris said. “Punch them in the mouth first before they hit us.”

Jumping out to a 10-0 lead on Kentucky, Michigan State silenced the Wildcat faithful early and held what many consider to be one of the greatest recruiting classes in history scoreless through the first TV timeout.

(MORE: Kentucky lost, but they are going to be just fine in time)

Instead of focusing on Kentucky’s loaded freshman class, college basketball fans were quickly reminded of how good the Spartans were last season.

Senior forward Adreian Payne (15 points) and sophomore guard Gary Harris (20 points) looked like potential lottery picks in the first half, but the tremendous play of senior point guard Keith Appling kept Michigan State in control when Kentucky made a run in the second half.

Payne and Harris combined to go 10-for-14 from the floor in the first half, but Appling — who has been inconsistent at point over the course of his career — handled Kentucky to the tune of 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and only three turnovers in 34 minutes.

Appling credits Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo for staying on him and helping him maintain his focus.

“Listening to him and believing in what he was telling me and watching film (helped me grow),” Appling said of Izzo.

“I feel like that comes with growth, being around Coach Izzo, on and off the court, I’ve learned a lot.”

The Spartans perhaps surprised the Wildcats by outscoring them 21-2 on fast break points — thanks in-part to Kentucky’s porous transition defense — but Kentucky outrebounded the Spartans 44-32.

But as Kentucky tied the game at 66-66 with under five minutes to play, Appling knocked in a huge corner three off a pass from Denzel Valentine and Harris made another layup to push the Spartans ahead by five and kept them ahead for good.

Beating the No. 1 team in America front of former Spartan greats like Magic Johnson, Morris Peterson and Jason Richardson was a big early-season moment for Michigan State but as Harris and Appling sat at the podium, they remained focused on their goals in March and April.

“We can’t win a Big Ten championship or a title playing in this game,” Harris said

“It’s a great win, but at the same time we didn’t accomplish anything tonight,” Appling said.

“We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season, not the beginning.”