The Champions Classic — the first can’t-miss event of the 2016–17 college basketball calendar — took place Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden. As is usually the case with November games featuring a ton of freshmen, there was a lot of bad basketball disguised as entertainment, but just enough good moments (Frank Mason III!) to get fans excited about the new season. In the end, approximately 10,000 combined fouls were called in the two games, Kentucky and Kansas won, and Michigan State and Duke lost. Here are the things I took away from each team’s performance.
The Spartans lack a reliable post presence (largely because Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter both had offseason knee surgery), can’t shoot 3s, and don’t seem to have anyone who can consistently get into the paint to make things happen. Eron Harris was about 3 percent as good as he needed to be against Kentucky, and Michigan State went just 3-for-9 from the free throw line. No disrespect to Kenny Goins, who finished with nine points and eight rebounds, but it’s typically not a great sign when a program has a top-5 recruiting class and its best player is a former walk-on. The Michigan State defense was bad, the offense was atrocious, and the Spartans lost 69–48. Tom Izzo had such vivid flashbacks to the last shitty team he coached that I swear at one point in the second half I heard him yell profanities at Durrell Summers.
Michigan State suffered a 65–63 loss to Arizona in Hawaii on Friday, and Kentucky is one of the most talented teams in America; Sparty’s defeat on Tuesday night may have been a mixture of jet lag, inexperience, mental exhaustion, and a lack of identity without its veteran big men. Two games into the season, it’s obviously way too early for Michigan State to panic. Then again, this didn’t look like an 0–2 team that needs a few tweaks to get back on track. The Spartans appeared fundamentally broken, to the point that Michigan State fans should just grab a bottle of whiskey and prepare for the inevitable four-and-a-half-month emotional roller coaster (if they haven’t already).
But there is good news! Freshman guard Miles Bridges was pretty terrible in a game featuring lots of future NBA draft picks, yet I still felt like it was obvious that he was the most talented player on the floor. He tried to do too much, and went 2-of-11 for six points, but his problems were more the byproduct of Kentucky playing great defense and Michigan State looking like a disjointed mess than Bridges being in over his head. If he can get a little help and stop forcing things as much, he’s going to be an absolute stud and my favorite player in America to watch.
The scary thing about Kentucky’s very nice 69–48 win over Michigan State is that the Wildcats weren’t good for most of Tuesday’s game. Kentucky got outrebounded (44 to 40), had almost as many turnovers as assists (14 to 17), and used an offense that was a two-man affair (Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe) with De’Aaron Fox chipping in every so often. Michigan State spent most of the first half trying to hand Kentucky the game, and yet the Cats couldn’t build a big lead because of mental lapses and everyone not named Monk being unable to make jump shots. Considering that Kentucky’s frontcourt was MIA outside of a handful of solid defensive plays from Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis, it’s amazing that the team dished out such a thorough ass-kicking.
I don’t mean to come across as pessimistic. The Cats picked up a big win, and they’re only going to get better as their freshmen grow, build chemistry, and figure out just how much they can trust Brad Calipari to not snitch to his dad when the rest of the roster gets wasted. I’m semi-worried about Kentucky’s 3-point shooting and I’d bet my life on Monk going 3-for-17 during an important game this season, but I’m not sure any of that matters since every team has glaring weaknesses right now. Kentucky has the parts to be as good as anyone and just beat the hell out of a top-15 opponent while playing far below its best. That’s terrifying to think about, and it’s enough to convince me that the Cats will be in the national title picture all season long.
There’s probably not much to be gained from dissecting Duke’s performance versus Kansas, as the Blue Devils were without their three most talented players (Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Marques Bolden) in Tuesday night’s 77–75 loss. I know Michigan State is dealing with frontcourt injuries too, and I just roasted the Spartans regardless. But the difference is Duke’s guys should be back relatively soon, and the Blue Devils actually looked competent without them.
Duke was running on fumes for most of the second half. It had no business being in the game toward the end. Only six players got meaningful minutes for the Blue Devils, and their leaders disappointed: Grayson Allen was awful (4-of-15 shooting for 12 points), and Amile Jefferson had more turnovers (seven) than rebounds (four). And Kansas still needed a last-second shot to win? If I’m Coach K, I’m secretly ecstatic with the way my guys played. I flush this game, wait for my freshmen to get healthy, and thank my lucky stars that this group doesn’t have to deal with talk of potentially going undefeated. (Not that Duke had a realistic chance at running the table in a loaded ACC, but you just know the talking heads would’ve brought it up if the team started 20–0 or something.)
That said, Allen has to be better. He twisted his leg toward the end of the first half, and maybe that caused some issues for the rest of the game, but he was playing poorly even before that. No matter who you think the “best” player on Duke’s roster is, Allen is clearly the heart and soul of the team, and Duke needed him to step up against Kansas. If we’re drawing parallels between Allen in 2016–17 and J.J. Redick in 2005–06 — and we are — the stars were aligned for this to be Allen’s version of Redick’s 41-point outburst against Texas in December 2005. This was his chance to show the world how big his balls are as he single-handedly slayed a giant. Instead, Luke Kennard led the Blue Devils in scoring, Duke turned to Frank Jackson in the clutch, and Allen just sort of went through the motions all night.
Here’s my theory: Bill Self didn’t want to beat Duke. Anyone who knows anything about Self knows he loves his teams most when he hates them. That sounds weird, of course, but it’s true. Self is the one coach in college basketball who genuinely likes to dislike his team. And there’s a nuanced difference between that quality in Self and in someone like Bob Knight, whose screaming came from a place of rage. When Self looks mad on the outside, he’s actually really happy on the inside. He loves being in a perpetual state of conflicting emotions, which is why he’s always got that goddamn smirk on his face.
This also explains why Kansas regularly plays one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country. Self wants to lose early so he can have ammunition to throw at his players. He basically tries to neg his own team. He’s schedule negging, if you will. Self knows that if the Jayhawks are unbeaten entering their Big 12 schedule — which is a complete joke in his eyes — his players won’t listen to him when he tells them they suck. But if Kansas would’ve lost to Duke and been 0–2 for the first time since 1972–73? My god. He would’ve needed an ice bath to redistribute the blood to the rest of his body.
Anyway, that plan was shot to hell when Frank Mason reminded Duke with two seconds left that … well … bitch, he’s Frank Mason. And after the Jayhawks’ opening two games against elite opponents (the other being a 103–99 overtime loss to Indiana on Friday), a couple of things have jumped out. First, Mason and Devonte’ Graham make up the best backcourt in the country. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I swear I could watch those two run a three-man weave with my grandma. They’re fearless, play off each other so well, and never let their foot off the gas. I truly don’t think they’re capable of having a bad night as a unit. They’re too talented and effective in so many ways that it seems impossible to completely shut them down.
Which brings me to my second point: Assuming that Mason and Graham bring it every night, this Kansas season hinges entirely on Josh Jackson. Carlton Bragg will do his thing, grabbing boards and making 15-footers and dunks. Sviatoslav “The Ukrainmaker” Mykhailiuk will hit between one and five jump shots every game. Udoka Azubuike will bulldoze his way into a ton of rebounds and fouls all season. Landen Lucas will, um, yeah. But Jackson, a 6-foot-8 freshman, is the unknown. He’s what we in the business like to call an “X factor.” He never got comfortable against Indiana, which outplayed Kansas from start to finish, but he found a rhythm against Duke. After Jackson went on a scoring spurt at the start of Tuesday’s second half, the Jayhawks erased a five-point deficit and never trailed for the remainder of the contest. This isn’t a coincidence.
Mason and Graham will carry the offense for long stretches, and Kansas should be great defensively, so there isn’t a ton of pressure on Jackson to immediately be great. If he is, though, the Jayhawks are probably the best team in the country (at least until Duke gets healthy). Just don’t tell Self.