No. 4 Duke proves No. 19 Michigan State cannot win at elite level if they keep missing on elite talent

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Champions Classic has become one of college basketball’s marquee events, the culmination of a made-for-television 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon that ushers in the season for the common fan.

With blueblood programs Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State battling one another each November, between the title-winning head coaches and the numerous potential All-Americans on the floor, as a sports fans, what’s not to like?

But as major college basketball has evolved into a one-and-done driven recruiting race between the haves and the have-nots, one of the four programs participating in the Champions Classic is clearly behind in the elite talent pool for the 2014-15 season. It certainly showed on Monday night as No. 4 Duke led wire-to-wire in an 81-71 win over No. 19 Michigan State.

The Blue Devils jumped out to an 8-2 lead less than two minutes into the game and seemed to hold a managable difference between 5-10 points for much of the rest of the contest.

MORE: No. 1 Kentucky makes 40-0 seem possible with punishing win over No. 5 Kansas

Tom Izzo’s Spartans showed the talent, toughness, determination and execution needed to be a Top-25 mainstay and a Big Ten title contender. But without elite, pro-level talent, Michigan State couldn’t get over the hump when facing future pros like Duke’s freshmen, center Jahlil Okafor and small forward Justise Winslow.

Much has been made of the 2014 Champions Classic having 23 total McDonald’s All-Americans between the four rosters, but the Spartans only contributed senior wing Branden Dawson to that equation. Meanwhile, freshmen starters for Duke like Okafor, Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones made a huge difference for the Blue Devils. All three were McDonald’s All-Americans in 2014 and all three have been regular starters for the Blue Devils this season as true freshmen.

The 7-foot Okafor looked unguardable at times without a double team, as he finished with 17 points and five rebounds on the evening while Winslow’s power game on the wing contributed to 15 points, six rebounds and three assists. When Okafor went to the bench with four fouls with 8:54 left in the second half, and Duke holding a single-digit lead, it was Jones who knocked down a four-point play a minute later to push Duke to a 64-51 lead.

Jones finished with 17 points and four assists while Duke senior guard Quinn Cook, another former Burger Boy, had a team-high 19 points and six assists as well. The Blue Devils simply had too much firepower for Michigan State.

The Spartans did as best they could with veterans like senior point guard Travis Trice (15 points, eight assists), Dawson (18 points, nine rebounds) and junior guard Denzel Valentine (13 points), but they couldn’t match Duke’s quick scoring bursts and overall talent. In the end, a depleted Michigan State roster couldn’t hang with Duke’s nine McDonald’s All-Americans, but it did serve as motivation for the Spartans and gives them a measuring stick for elite teams later in the season.

“That did motivate us coming into this game,” Dawson said of the All-American difference between the teams. “A lot of people doubted us and said we weren’t talented enough for them and wouldn’t match up with them. But I think us being a younger team and us losing our three leading scorers, we did a good job.”

It’s not like Izzo hasn’t tried to put the Spartans in position to succeed using the same kind of elite talent that his counterparts currently possess.

The veteran head coach chased a number of players participating in the 2014 Champions Classic on the recruiting trail and was heavily involved with Duke’s Jones and Okafor, as well as Kansas freshman power forward Cliff Alexander and Kentucky freshmen guards Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker. Former Duke forward Jabari Parker and former Kentucky wing James Young both played in last year’s Champions Classic and were heavily recruited by Michigan State before opting to play elsewhere for their one season of college basketball.

But Izzo struck out swinging on those seven McDonald’s All-Americans that were scooped up by other members of the Champions Classic, and with former Spartan Gary Harris departing for the NBA Draft himself last summer, Michigan State finds itself behind in the current evolution of talent acquisition in college basketball.

“We were in there with [Okafor], and I thought we were in there more with Jones — to be honest with you — but hey, they’re both doing well and I’m happy for them. I think they’re both going to be great players,” Izzo said after the game.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari has set the model for success using one-and-done players in the current world of college basketball with three Final Four appearances in the last four seasons and Kansas head coach Bill Self and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski have recently followed suit by recruiting blue-chip players such as Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Parker. If Michigan State wants to remain among the championship pack that plays in the spotlight each November, they need to start hauling in elite talent of its own, or the Spartns won’t find themselves battling for national championships in March.

Just don’t tell that to the players in the Michigan State locker room, because they’ve already heard it all before and it won’t deter them in their chase for glory in 2014-15.

“As far as our team, we don’t really have any McDonald’s All-Americans on this team, but we play hard, we just play solid,” Dawson said. “And I think that for those guys, they were fortunate to have nine McDonald’s All-Americans on their team, which play solid and play together.”

Michigan State is going to claw, fight and scrap its way to another 20-win season and Izzo hasn’t let the program miss the NCAA Tournament since 1997 but history certainly isn’t on its side. Only two teams have won a national championship without a McDonald’s All-American in the last 36 years, and the Spartans will need more blue-chip talent if they’re to win their first national title since 2000.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.