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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.

N.C. State forward Jericole Hellems released from hospital

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State says sophomore forward Jericole Hellems has been released from a hospital and is in “good spirits” after an injury in Saturday’s win at Wake Forest.

The team announced the news Sunday on Twitter. Hellems had fallen on a rebound attempt and banged the back of his head on the court with 28 seconds left. He was alert but had to be carried from the court on a stretcher. Then he was taken to a hospital for precautionary reasons to rule out a possible lower back injury as well as to be evaluated for a possible concussion.

The team says Hellems will meet with NC State doctors in the coming days, while coach Kevin Keatts will address his status later in the week.

NC State travels to UNC Greensboro next Sunday.

AP Poll: Louisville remains No. 1, Ohio State jumps to No. 3

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Louisville and Kansas finally provided some consistency to what has been a volatile Top 25 poll this season, while perennial bluebloods Michigan State and North Carolina continued to tumble after another wave of defeats.

The Cardinals solidified thier place at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 released Monday by routing then-No. 4 Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and breezing past Pittsburgh over the past week. The Jayhawks stayed at No. 2 after returning from their Maui Invitaitonal title to thump former Big 12 member Colorado.

“I think it’s two games in a row, where we got stops,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “We didn’t allow second shots. We ran the clock on offense. We got great looks. We got layups, and that’s a killer.”

Ohio State jumped from sixth to third following its 74-49 rout of then-No. 7 North Carolina and a Big Ten blowout of Penn State. Maryland dropped one spot to fourth despite continuing to pile up wins, while Michigan slid one spot to round out the top five after Juwan Howard’s bunch ran into the Louisville buzzsaw for their first loss of the season.

The Spartans continued their fall from preseason No. 1 after losing to Duke, this time dropping from 11th to No. 16. The Tar Heels tumbled 10 spots to No. 17 after getting crushed by Ohio State and losing to No. 9 Virginia.

San Diego State joined the rankings at No. 25.

1. Louisville (55)

2. Kansas (4)

3. Ohio St. (5)

4. Maryland

5. Michigan

6. Gonzaga

7. Duke

8. Kentucky

9. Virginia

10. Oregon

11. Baylor

12. Auburn

13. Memphis

14. Dayton

15. Arizona

16. Michigan St.

17. North Carolina

18. Butler

19. Tennessee

20. Villanova

21. Florida St.

22. Seton Hall

23. Xavier

24. Colorado

25. San Diego St.

Others receiving votes: Utah St. 160, Washington 144, Purdue 130, Indiana 13, Marquette 11, Liberty 9, Saint Mary’s (Cal) 8, Texas 6, Florida 5, Penn St. 5, Georgetown 4, West Virginia 3, Richmond 3, LSU 2, Duquesne 1, DePaul 1, VCU 1.

Monday’s Overreactions: Naji Marshall owns Cincinnati, Ohio State is No. 1, Joel Ayayi

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Naji Marshall, Xavier

Marshall has lived up to the hype through the first month of the season, but the biggest and best game that he has played in 2019 happened on Saturday. Squaring off with archrival Cincinnati, Marshall went off for 31 points, eight boards, five steals and three assists, hitting four threes and totally outplaying his Bearcat counterpart, Jarron Cumberland.

As a team, Xavier has been a little bit up and down this season. Their issues shooting the ball have been prevalent all season long, and as good as the likes of Tyrique Jones, Quentin Goodin and Paul Scruggs – hell, and Marshall himself – can be, there has been some inconsistency to date.

There was not any on Saturday.

Marshall took over and led Xavier to their biggest win of the season.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Ohio State Buckeyes

Can we even consider anyone else?

On Wednesday, the Buckeyes went into Chapel Hill and ran North Carolina out of their own gym, leaving with a 74-49 win. On Saturday, Chris Holtmann’s club hosted Penn State, and that did not go well for the Nittany Lions, who lost by 32 points while giving up 106.

This team is starting to look scary, and there’s a valid argument to make that they should be sitting at No. 1 in the AP poll this morning.

Speaking of which …

OVERREACTIONS

1. OHIO STATE HAS THE MOST IMPRESSIVE RESUME IN THE COUNTRY

If we ranked teams solely based on resume at this point in the season, I don’t think there is any way to leave the Buckeyes out of the top spot.

They are undefeated. They have beaten Villanova by 25 at home. They have beaten North Carolina by 25 on the road. They have beaten Penn State by 32 at home. Those are three of the top 24 teams in the country, according to KenPom. No one else can match that. Hell, the Buckeyes are currently sitting at No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings.

To put those wins into context, consider this, via Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vision: There have been six instances this season of a top 50 KenPom team losing by 20 or more points. Ohio State is responsible for three of them.

To be honest, I’m not ready to actually call Ohio State the best team in college basketball – I explain why in the podcast below at the 11:20 mark – but they are certainly playing like it.

2. WE FINALLY SAW THE ANTHONY COWAN WE NEED TO SEE FOR MARYLAND TO REACH THEIR POTENTIAL

Look, I know how ridiculous this is going to sound.

Coming off of a performance where Anthony Cowan shot 6-for-14 from the floor in a game where Maryland needed something bordering on a miracle to erase a 15 point second half deficit at home against unranked Illinois, I’m finally convinced?

Well, kinda?

Here’s my logic: I am not sold on Mark Turgeon being the best coach in college basketball, and I am hardly alone in that sentiment. But he does have a roster with some talent, and it is always a good sign when a team’s talent takes over and wins a game where, frankly, they played like crap. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday. In the past, Cowan would not have taken over. In the past, he would not have put the team on his back, scored 20 points in the final 23 minutes and finished with seven boards, six assists and the game-tying and winning points in the final 20 seconds.

All-Americans bail their team out in games they are not supposed to win. Final Four teams win games where they don’t show up until they are getting thoroughly embarrassed. The Terps did both of those things.

Now, would I like to see them finally figure out how to win without sleepwalking through the first half of games?

Absolutely!

But it’s hardly a bad sign to be sitting at 10-0 as you’re still figuring things out.

3. BUTLER IS THE MOST UNDERRATED TEAM IN THE COUNTRY

After taking down Florida in Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon, Butler has a surprisingly impressive crop of wins this season. They beat Minnesota at home. They beat Missouri in Kansas City. They beat Stanford on a neutral. They won at Ole Miss. And now they have that win over the Gators, who we just can’t quite seem to quit.

Either way, the Bulldogs play at Baylor on Tuesday night and then take on Purdue in the Crossroads Classic next Saturday.

We’ll know more about them then, but for now, this is a team that we have to talk about.

That said …

4. … NO ONE HAS MADE US A BELIEVER IN MORE TEAMS THAN FLORIDA

Florida State beat Florida in Gainesville?

The Seminoles must be awesome!

UConn beat Florida in Storrs?

The Huskies are back, baby!

Butler knocks off the Gators in Hinkle?

The Bulldogs are the most underrated team in the country?

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5. JOEL AYAYI IS THE X-FACTOR THAT WILL MAKE GONZAGA A TITLE CONTENDER

Listen, I’m not saying that Ayayi is the best player on this Gonzaga roster.

I think that he’s probably their third-best player, and even that might be generous.

What he is, however, is a guy that fills a role that the Zags didn’t have anyone to fill. The issue with this Gonzaga team heading into the season was in their backcourt. We wondered if they had enough point guard play, perimeter shooting and playmaking to be able to compete with the best teams in the country. It’s one thing to have a great frontline with guards that can get them the rock where they need it. It’s another thing to have a great frontline and no one that an initiate offense or keep defenses honest.

Ayayi has done those things to date this season. He’s averaging 10.1 points, 6.6 boards and 3.8 assists, which is second on the team to Ryan Woolridge, who is quietly having a solid start to the season as well. He provides length, athleticism, floor-spacing, a second ball-handler and creator. He takes the pressure off of Woolridge to carry the lead guard load.

He is more or less everything that Gonzaga fans were hoping Admon Gilder would turn into.

We’ll see if this lasts, but his performance against Washington on Saturday was really promising. Ayayi didn’t play or shoot particularly well, but he stepped up with 20 seconds left and buried the biggest shot of the game, a three to give the Zags a 82-76 lead and bury U-Dub.

Mamukelashvili breaks wrist as No. 16 Seton Hall loses to Iowa State

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AMES, Iowa — No. 16 Seton Hall lost much more than a game in Ames, as starter Sandro Mamukelashvili broke his right wrist in the first half of a loss at Iowa State.

Tyrese Haliburton scored 17 points, George Conditt had a season-high 17 off the bench and the Cyclones knocked off Seton Hall 76-66 on Sunday for its second straight victory.

Rasir Bolton scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half to help the Cyclones avenge an 84-76 loss on Nov. 29 to the Pirates (6-3) in the Bahamas. The rematch was part of the Big East/Big 12 Alliance series.

Mamukelashvili, a 6-foot-11 forward and a facilitator who averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds a game entering play, went down hard with 15:14 to go in the first half and didn’t return.

Coach Kevin Willard said after the game that it was too soon to know how long Mamukelashvili might be out.

“I don’t know for sure. It’s definitely broken. But we … have to go get an MRI tomorrow and let our doctors and radiologists read it,” Willard said. “There’s definitely a break in there, it’s just that we don’t know where it is.”

Conditt’s free throws pushed Iowa State’s lead to 59-53 with 2:56 left. Haliburton then drew an offensive foul and freed himself for a wide-open 3 at the top of the key. Haliburton drilled it, making it a nine-point game at the 2:23 mark.

Seton Hall fouled Prentiss Nixon from beyond the arc with 1:27 left. Nixon hit all three from the line to push Iowa State back up by nine, and Conditt’s transition dunk sealed the win.

Iowa State won despite shooting just 4 of 19 on 3s.

“Every good team needs a signature win and this was the first one for us,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “It felt really good beat a ranked team, but also a team that beat us before.”

Myles Powell scored 19 points with eight rebounds for Seton Hall. But Powell was 7 of 20 shooting, had five turnovers and fouled out with 54.4 seconds to go on an offensive foul. The Pirates’ previous defeats came against Michigan State and Oregon by just five combined points.

Seton Hall committed 20 turnovers and was outrebounded 43-40 despite having a major size advantage. The Pirates also gave Iowa State 33 tries from the line, and Cyclones made 26 of them.

“We turned the ball over too much and we fouled,” Willard said. “You can’t go on the road against a good team and turn the basketball over and foul.”

THE BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: On losing Mamukelashvili, Willard said that “it changes things a lot. But the good thing is, we have some guys that need to get comfortable in that role and step up in that role…we’re going to need everyone to step up.”

Iowa State: The Cyclones have been strangely awful at times this season shooting jump shots — even though they supposedly have enough shooters. It’s a problem that Iowa State will need to get sorted out before it threatens to sink their season. On the plus side, the Cyclones were active with their hands in forcing Seton Hall’s bigs to turn it over, and Haliburton delivered yet another signature performance.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Losing on the road to a Big 12 team that had the opportunity to play them 10 days ago shouldn’t cost the Pirates too much. Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum can be a brutal place for opponents — especially one that didn’t necessarily know what it was walking into.

HE SAID IT

“It’s a hell of a win for us.” —- Prohm said.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: At Rutgers on Saturday.

Iowa State: Hosts Iowa on Thursday night.

Monday Overreactions Podcast: Ohio State’s the best, Travis Steele’s the GOAT, is Anthony Cowan good?

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Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan are back to walk through everything that happened in college basketball this weekend. Is Ohio State the best team in college basketball? Is it actually Maryland? Just how good is Anthony Cowan? Just how bad is Florida? And did Travis Steele do the greatest thing in the history of coaching on Saturday night? He might have.