Tuesday marked the first big night of the college basketball season, as four of the teams you’ll consider picking to go all the way in March—Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, and Kentucky—tipped off in Chicago. The Champions Classic often serves as the first chance most people have to see the highly touted freshmen that anchor each team. But thanks to the enormity of the stage and the timing of the games (November basketball! Woohoo!), the matchups resemble high school basketball more closely than they do the NBA, where a fair number of Tuesday’s participants will find themselves next year. Duke beat Michigan State, 88-81, and Kansas outlasted Kentucky, 65-61, and while it’s early in the season, there are still a few things we can take away from the games as we move into the meat of the nonconference schedule.
Grayson Allen waited eight minutes before he scored his first basket. He spent the next 32 making up for lost time. The often-controversial Duke guard finished with a career-high 37 points and was close to unguardable from deep. He started off modestly, and had 11 points before sinking a deep 3 at the buzzer to give the Blue Devils a four-point cushion at the half.
Duke looked lost for much of the game. When Marvin Bagley III reclassified and picked Duke over USC and UCLA in August, it was assumed he would dominate against other college bigs. For the first few minutes, the prediction seemed accurate. In the 10 minutes he played before being poked in the eye by a teammate, Bagley controlled the game. The star freshman scored four points, grabbed six total rebounds (five on the offensive glass), and added a block and a steal. When he exited, Duke had yet to make a shot farther than a few feet from the basket. The two teams traded blows for the rest of the half, and the Blue Devils seemed unable to make up for their missing phenom down low.
… Until the second half. That’s when the Grayson Allen show really started. Allen scored 23 in the final period, and every time Michigan State looked ready to make a run, he was ready with a dagger from deep. The senior scored eight of Duke’s last 10 points, including a falling stunner from 3 after Michigan State pulled within four with less than two minutes to go.
Allen entered this season hoping for a resurgence after a lackluster junior campaign, marred by the stripping of his captaincy and accusations of dirty play. A year ago, Allen was arguably the best player on a team of future NBA draft picks, coming off the best season of his life. This year, he’s still arguably the best player on a team of future NBA draft picks, but for the first time, his value is in question. Choosing to come back for his junior year was risky, but Duke was filled with as much talent as ever, and a chance to improve on his late-first-round draft stock seemed plausible. Instead, he struggled, picking up negative headlines with each tough performance. Allen is too talented and too divisive to stay out of the press. But if Tuesday was any indication, he’s ready to shift the focus back to what he’s capable of doing on the floor. The Grayson Allen comeback tour started Tuesday night, and you’re not going to want to miss a single minute of it.
Let’s start with what we already knew: Miles Bridges is a remarkable basketball player, and we’re all better for having him at Michigan State this season. Bridges choosing to return for his sophomore year was one of the surprises of the offseason. The Spartans entered last season as one of the favorites to cut down the nets come March. After they fell well short of that mark, limping into the tournament with a 19-14 record and a 9-seed, it appeared clear that Bridges—who finished the year averaging nearly 17 points and eight rebounds per contest—was out the door.
But one-and-dones don’t frequent Michigan State, and even those projected to follow the trend seem to hang around East Lansing longer than expected. When the wing announced that he’d be returning, the Spartans immediately shot back up preseason boards, and for good reason. He’s a bona fide star, and that’s not something that many younger players on a Tom Izzo squad have ever been able to claim. If last season was his breakout, this year looks to be more of the same. Bridges started slowly, but picked up steam late, finishing with 19 points (on 7-for-15 shooting, and 50 percent accuracy behind the arc), five rebounds, four assists, and four blocks.
Performances like this weren’t uncommon last season. What’s different is now he has a partner (or two). Freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. and sophomore Nick Ward each finished with 19 points, as well, and combined for 12 rebounds and five blocks. Jackson was the eighth-ranked recruit nationally and possesses the rare combination of shooting skill and size that makes him a nightmare to defend. The freshman made two 3s toward the end of the first half and added a third just after the break. Ward, Michigan State’s second-leading scorer from last season, looks ready to pick up from where he left off. With defenses having to focus on Jackson and Bridges, room opens for the forward to make an impact.
The Spartans struggled with Duke’s zone defense, and they allowed 25 offensive rebounds to a team that played most of the game without its best interior presence, but there’s a lot to like looking forward. Izzo’s Michigan State teams may have fallen to 1-11 against Duke, but if Jackson and Ward can provide Bridges with dependable second and third fiddles, don’t be surprised if the result looks a little different come March.
High-flying freshmen and surprise second-year lottery talents were the points of focus for the other three teams in the Champions Classic. The same can’t be said for the Jayhawks. Billy Preston, their top recruit, was set to play on Tuesday night, but just before the game, it was announced that he wouldn’t appear. Preston was involved in a single-car accident, coach Bill Self said in a statement, and while he wasn’t injured in the incident, Kansas decided to hold him while it investigated the accident in hopes of finding “a clearer financial picture specific to the vehicle.”
While I’m sure Self would tell you Preston’s presence was missed, the Jayhawks excelled in his absence. A team effort, led by seniors Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (17 points, three assists, three rebounds) and Devonte’ Graham (11 points, five assists, three rebounds) and sophomores Udoka Azubuike (13 points, eight rebounds) and Malik Newman (12 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three steals) left Kansas with a 65-61 win that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The departures of National Player of the Year Frank Mason and freshman phenom Josh Jackson meant Kansas had holes to fill. Malik Newman’s transfer from Mississippi State made the transition easier—Newman was a top-10 recruit in the class of 2015—and the emergence of Mykhailiuk and Azubuike was an added bonus.
Newman and Graham scored Kansas’s last eight points, starting with a free throw from Graham to break a tie at 57. Nearly every time down the floor, the duo were asked to contribute, and they did. Newman drained a 3 with with just over two minutes left to extend the lead to four, and both Graham and Newman hit a pair of free throws down the stretch to ice the game.
Kansas was a betting favorite to win the national title last season because it had a pair of stars and a strong enough supporting cast to trouble even the deepest of teams. The Jayhawks might not have as much talent at the top of the roster as they did last spring, but when they can count on four guys to make plays when it matters most, does it really matter? If Preston joins the lineup or Lagerald Vick can contribute in bursts, Kansas is going to be back where it is at the start of each tournament: firmly at the top of the pecking order.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Kentucky has a bunch of freshmen, and they’re all really good. Last year’s class included De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Bam Adebayo, who all departed for the NBA after losing to eventual champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight. For any other program, replacing that kind of firepower would be a big ask. But this is Kentucky. The saying is clichéd, but the Wildcats don’t rebuild. They reload.
This season’s newcomers include Kevin Knox—a blue-chip wing from Tampa—and Hamidou Diallo—a redshirt freshman who arrived midway through last season, but opted to wait until this year to make his debut. While he would have been a welcome addition to a Wildcats squad with talent at every position, waiting allowed him to try to make his star turn. While Tuesday’s performance wasn’t quite that, it was still a solid showing for the highly touted youngster. Diallo scored 14 points on 4-for-11 shooting and added five rebounds and four assists. As good as he looked at times, though, it was Knox who stole the show for Kentucky in a losing effort. The wing scored 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting, grabbed seven boards, and picked two pockets.
Down four with just under two minutes left, Knox finished at the rim to cut Kansas’s lead to two. Just over a minute later, with just over 20 seconds left, Knox missed what would have been a game-tying jumper. While the result wasn’t what he was hoping for, the aggression he showed in a do-or-die scenario is exactly what the Wildcats are looking for. Knox is a dynamic scorer, and it’s more than likely he’ll take—and make—a few game-winning buckets before the season ends.
For Kentucky to make another deep run in March, the team will need more of the same from Knox and Diallo. The Wildcats will benefit from improved performances by fellow first-years Quade Green (six points, two assists), Nick Richards (two points, nine rebounds), and P.J. Washington (two points, four blocks, three assists) as they settle into their roles. Integrating new starters takes time, but at this point, John Calipari is used to it. Kentucky will find its footing sooner than later, and once it does—watch out.