Champions Classic Takeaways: What we learned on college basketball’s opening night

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NEW YORK — There is no question in my mind that creating the Champions Classic was one of the best ideas in the history of college basketball.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that.

I may be on no sleep after a late night in Madison Square Garden, but I’m thinking clearly here. My three favorites events to cover are, in order, the Final Four, the second weekend of the NCAA tournament and the Champions Classic. It’s the perfect way to generate hype for the college basketball season at a time when there is an overload of sports available to the casual American sports fan. The NBA started. College football is in arguably their most important month. The NFL is in full-swing, and with more than a month left in the fantasy football regular season, there are plenty of people that are still heavily invested in what happens on Sundays across the country.

And yet, last night, college basketball was the biggest story. Playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena, we had No. 3 Kansas taking on No. 4 Duke as the opening act for a battle between No. 1 Michigan State and No. 2 Kentucky.

But I think that it’s time to call it like it is: The Champions Classic is great for the sport of college basketball, but it is absolutely horrendous for the actual basketball itself.

What I mean by that is simple: Last night featured a pair of close games with memorable plays during the second half, but the game-play itself was just terrible. Kansas committed 28 turnovers against Duke, who committed 16 turnovers and shot 35.9 percent from the floor and still managed to win. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me for the second game, but I’m estimating that there were roughly 642 fouls called in the first half of the Michigan State-Kentucky game.

Playing the Champions Classic is a way great to get people talking about college basketball.

When the games are this ugly, it’s not always the best way to keep people talking about college basketball.

The good news is that Tyrese Maxey bailed us out. By scoring 26 points in the final 29 minutes in his collegiate unveiling, Maxey changed the narrative somewhat. Seeing him go nuts against the consensus Preseason National Player of the Year was fun, but we shouldn’t ignore the larger point here.

There is unquestionably a talent drain in college basketball. We’ve written about that before. That means that the best teams in the country are going to be younger, and those young players are going to be less talented. We may get lucky and end up with teams that look like Zion and R.J.’s Duke squad on the season’s opening night, but more often than not, the basketball is going to look like what it looked like on Tuesday.

“There are other games on November 5th,” John Calipari said. “Can’t we move this back a week and let us all get two games in before we have to walk into this arena in this venue and ask these kids to perform?”

THERE IS NO CLEAR-CUT BEST TEAM IN COLLEGE HOOPS

We knew this heading into Tuesday night’s doubleheader, but what unfolded only further enforced that idea.

Michigan State was more or less the consensus No. 1 team in the country despite the fact that they had so many young players being asked to perform in new, larger roles. They lost to a Kentucky team that lacks star power, is as small inside as any Coach Cal team that we’ve ever seen and needed a 26-point explosion from Tyrese Maxey to avoid blowing a 13-point second half lead. Kansas was the other team that some believed to be the best team in the country and they got their butts handed to them by a Duke team that doesn’t have anywhere near the talent of Duke team’s in the recent past.

Get ready for a season where we hear all about the parity and competitive balance and how any team can lose to anyone in league play on any given night. It’s going to be that kind of a year.

THERE ARE NOT ALL THAT MANY CLEAR-CUT NBA STARS IN COLLEGE HOOPS, EITHER

Part of the reason that there is no clear-cut team in college basketball is that this year’s class of freshmen aren’t as good as last year’s group, and the best freshmen didn’t cluster at one program the way we’ve seen in the past.

Memphis has the No. 1 recruit in the country in James Wiseman and he anchors the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, but the only other five-star that Penny Hardaway landed was Precious Achiuwa, who is a top 15 prospect. Duke doesn’t have a Zion, or an R.J. Barrett, or a Marvin Bagley III, or a Jayson Tatum. As associate head coach Jon Scheyer put it, “our freshmen [look like] freshmen” this year.

Kentucky might have a lottery pick Tyrese Maxey, but that’s based off of one explosive performance after six weeks of failing to impress in practice. Calipari said in the presser that this was the first time all season he “saw the guy I recruited.” Kansas might not have a first round pick on their roster. Michigan State might not have an NBA player on their roster. As one NBA executive told NBC Sports, there wasn’t a guy that he would want to take in the top ten in the building on Tuesday.

DUKE BELONGS IN THE CONVERSATION FOR THE BEST IN THE COUNTRY

I might be in the minority here, but my biggest takeaway from Duke’s win over Kansas is that the Blue Devils are for real this season. I came into the year wondering whether or not they were ever going to find a way to be good on the offensive end of the floor and the defensive end of the floor. Turns out, the Blue Devils might just be one of those teams that score just enough to win games with an elite defense.

I think Duke’s starting lineup says all that you need to know about this team and what Coach K wants to do this season. Tre Jones started alongside Jordan Goldwire and Cassius Stanley in the backcourt. Goldwire only ended up playing 13 minutes, but it was a statement, one that I think sets the tone for what the expectation is: If you are not going to guard, you are not going to play. Goldwire is fine. He’s a liability on the offensive end of the floor, but he is just as much of a menace defensively as Jones. Pairing them with Stanley – who was terrific in the second half on Tuesday night – is the best defensive trio that Duke can field. Kansas didn’t play all that well and turning the all over 28 times should be humiliating for a team with national title aspirations, but Duke’s defense played a major part in that.

MICHIGAN STATE LOST, BUT THEY ARE NOT AS FAR OFF AS YOU MIGHT BELIEVE

We probably should have seen this coming with the Spartans. Truth be told, they are not as experienced as we all thought they would be. Part of the reason for that is Josh Langford’s injury, and based on the conversations I had on Tuesday night, I am not optimistic that he will be back this season. Part of it is that Kyle Ahrens was banged up. Throw in the departure of Matt McQuaid, and suddenly there are a lot of minutes on the perimeter that need to be replaced.

And the guys doing the replacing? Sophomores like Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, who are stepping into bigger roles, or freshmen like Rocket Watts and Malik Hall, who may not be ready for the job just yet. That’s to say nothing of the minutes that Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier were asked to play alongside Xavier Tillman. Michigan State has a lot of guys playing new and expanded roles, and we should have been prepared for a few hiccups along the way.

But here’s the thing, Michigan State erased a 13-point second half deficit and was within one possession when Tyrese Maxey hit this dagger to put the game away.

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That was despite the fact that they shot 5-for-26 from three. That’s despite the fact that a number of those misses came from veterans (Cassius Winston, Ahrens) that had very good looks down the stretch. It’s despite the fact that Henry played about three minutes in the first half, and Tillman found himself in foul trouble for much of the night despite the fact that I’m not sure he actually committed a foul while getting whistled for three in the first 26 minutes of the game. Those are, quite literally, the four experienced guys that are going to be asked to carry the water for the Spartans this season, and for one reason or another, they all had bad games Tuesday.

Which is probably why Winston, in the locker room after the game, was relatively upbeat, all things considered. He told me that he knew there were things that this team had to fix and things they had to do better, but that there was enough there for him to be confident about where his team will be in March.

Because despite everything that went wrong, if Winston makes one of his late threes and Maxey misses his 28-foot bomb, we’re having an entirely different conversation.

BILL SELF HAS A DECISION TO MAKE WHEN IT COMES TO PLAYING TWO BIGS

Let me get this out of the way first: I don’t think that things went quite as badly as some may think. Of the 28 turnovers that Kansas committed on Tuesday night, 15 of them came from KU guards and wings. This was not entirely on Udoka Azubuike, David McCormick and Silvio De Sousa.

That said, what Duke did gave Kansas all kinds of problems. They doubled hard on Azubuike, or whoever got the ball in the post, on the catch, simply ignoring the second big as much as possible. Given the lack of shooting on the floor overall for the Jayhawks, this meant that the lane was completely clogged, and it rendered Azubuike useless offensively. When combined with the fact that Duke’s bigs were able to step out on the perimeter and make threes – Matthew Hurt, Vernon Carey and Jack White combined to hit five threes – that ended up being the matchup that cost the Jayhawks the most.

Now I tend to err on the side of skill. I’d rather see a lineup on the floor that is smaller and more talented than to have more size up front. That’s the opposite of the way that Bill Self views the game, and he has quite a couple more basketball games as a coach than I have. That said, I fully believe that for this Kansas team to reach their ceiling, they are going to have to play Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji at the three and the four for extended minutes.

It worked with Josh Jackson and LaGerald Vick in 2017.

It worked with Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk in 2018.

Why wouldn’t it work with Garrett and Agbaji this year?

JOHN CALIPARI LOOKS READY TO EMBRACE THE SMALL-BALL REVOLUTION

I’m not sure how comfortable Cal is with it, but he does appear ready to accept that this roster has to play small to survive. For my money, the best lineups that Kentucky rolled out on Tuesday night featured the three leads guards on the floor together – Maxey, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley.

How the rest of this rotation shakes out will be interesting to see, but it was quite clear to me that A) the frontcourt is never going to be a strength for this team, and B) that the freshmen wings – Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks – have a ways to go before they are ready to contribute at a high level in a game like this.

The good news for Kentucky?

For the four weeks or so, they are going to be loading up on bye game cupcakes.

That should help cure what ails his younger guys. In the end, all they may need are some reps and some confidence.