Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey stole the show in college basketball’s biggest regular-season showcase, and it’s OK if you don’t know who Tyrese Maxey is. In fact, that’s kind of the entire point of college basketball having a big regular-season showcase.
Tuesday night kicked off college basketball season, and that means it was time for the Champions Classic, the annual tip-off event featuring Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke—as it just so happens, the teams ranked 1 through 4 in the season-opening AP Poll, in that order. Kentucky drew the no. 1 Spartans, and Maxey, a freshman playing in his first college game, took down the top team in the nation in a dazzling debut.
Maxey—described by our Kevin O’Connor as “undoubtedly a first-round talent”—finished with 26 points, more than any other player on any team in the Classic. Coming off the bench, he showed all the skills that made him a five-star recruit and should make him a lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. He’s a great athlete with a massive vertical leap and a stunningly mature playmaker with a preternatural feel for the game. And on Tuesday night, he showed he has the guts and the touch to drill a 35-footer with the game on the line, in the first game of his career, against the no. 1 team in the country.
For the most part, the basketball in the Champions Classic did not live up to the 1-2-3-4 billing. Kansas committed a whopping 28 turnovers—more than any power conference team had in any game all of last season—and still almost won, because Duke shot 36 percent from the floor and 8-for-24 from 3. MSU-Kentucky was also a clankfest, as the two teams shot a combined 39 percent from the floor and 11-for-44 from 3.
It is unsurprising that two college basketball teams played sloppy hoops in their first game of the year. These are unpaid 18-to-22-year-olds, and on elite teams like these, they skew closer to 18 than 22. There is a reason most elite college teams have historically opened their season by paying bottom-feeding schools like West Crapville State and Buttstown Tech to come to their gyms and lose—young, freshman-filled teams need time to tune up and get comfortable with one another.
But while the blowouts against WCSU and B-Tech serve a legitimate purpose for the teams paying for those wins, they’re not exactly entertaining for fans. Which is kind of a bummer in the one-and-done era of college basketball. We used to get four solid years of watching college stars; now we get 30-ish games. They play fewer games in their entire college careers than they will before the big Christmas Day games in their NBA rookie seasons, and a decent proportion of those games are tune-ups. For casual college basketball fans, there is near-perpetual whiplash. By the time we learn the players and their stories, they are gone; when November comes, we see familiar jerseys worn by unfamiliar faces.
The Champions Classic helps with that a bit. If we’re being honest, the event tells us little about the season to come: In eight years, we’ve had just two champions from these games, despite the title. Plus, we’re not going to find out much about these teams from their turnover-and-brick-filled season openers. The great teams will round into title contenders over the course of the five-month season, the bad ones won’t, and we don’t know which is which on opening night.
But we do get introduced to the stars of the year to come. Past Champions Classics saw Anthony Davis block seven shots and Zion Williamson go 11-for-13 for 28 points. Maxey probably isn’t Davis or Williamson—ESPN’s season-opening mock draft has him 13th—but Tuesday night brought a moment to remember. Whether Kentucky wins the national championship or busts out in the second round, whether Maxey rises to the top of the draft board or fades to the second round, he’ll always have this beautiful college moment—the night a kid playing his first game had the bravado and the range to take down the top team in the country.