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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.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.