College Basketball

College basketball: 8 things we (think we) learned from this year's Champions Classic

CHICAGO – Finally, college basketball could savor a night when the focus was on . . . well, college basketball. Let the numbers – good, bad and odd — roll.

Grayson Allen scored 37 points for Duke. Nobody in the Champions Classic had ever broken 30 before.

Michigan State shot 51 percent, had 25 assists on 31 field goals, blocked 12 shots – and lost.

Kansas shot 35 percent and was outscored in bench points 17-3 -– and won.

Kentucky played six freshmen and three sophomores and committed 18 turnovers, or only five fewer than it made field goals. But was in the game until the end.

Know what the Champions Classic was good for Tuesday night? A blueblooded kick start to a season that could use some good news. Know what else? Hints, omens, harbingers, portents.

So Duke outshoots Michigan State 88-81 and Kansas outgrinds Kentucky 65-61. Here are some things we now know.

Or at least we think we know.

Or at least we think we think.

1. Duke is No. 1. Really. If the season were a golf tournament, the Blue Devils would already be about 3-under in the first round. Especially after Tuesday, when they rode Allen’s hot hand, chased down 25 (!!!) offensive rebounds, committed only nine turnovers, and beat Michigan State — even with only 10 minutes from freshman sensation Marvin Bagley III and his scratched eye.

In other words, Duke didn’t look much like a team starting four freshmen in November.

“This doubleheader is a big moment,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “So you don’t know if the moment or the other team will defeat you, and tonight neither defeated them. I really love that.”
 
2. It’s clear the Duke zone is not going to be pleasant for a lot of opponents. When the tall and long Blue Devils extend their wingspans, it’s like trying to pass the basketball through a cornfield. Hence, 12 steals and a bunch more deflections against the Spartans. Krzyzewski called for one possession of man-to-man.
 
3. The Allen for Player of the Year campaign is now open for business. Instead of the flighty and mercurial young talent from past seasons, Allen now looks like a poised assassin, tormenting the Spartans by going 7-for-11 from the 3-point line. Bagley has looked terrific, but Allen will have to be the straw to stir the Duke kiddie cocktail. 

“I’ve played in 90 more games than my four teammates,” he noted of a lineup of him and four rookies. “I feel a little but more comfortable and calm and confident out there.”

MORE: Grayson Allen’s 37 points propel Blue Devils over Spartans

This from Michigan State’s Miles Bridges: “He was way more aggressive, that’s what comes with being a senior. That’s what seniors do.”

And Krzyzewski: “He’s not a good shooter, he’s great shooter.”

4. If Tom Izzo loses many more times to Krzyzewski, he might turn into Mt. Etna. His record against Krzyzewski is like infinity – impossible to fully comprehend. Just how do you explain 1-11?

“I don’t go there,” Krzyzewski said, preferring to change the subject. “You don’t get any banners with a record against one school or against another coach.”

But Izzo goes there, and he ain’t happy.  “I’m so sick of it. Our fans, our media, everybody should be upset,” he said. “I guess at least we’ve got the courage to play them, which most people don’t.”

Or as Bridges said, “It’s a pride thing with coach. It’s a pride thing with us, too.”

5. Michigan State is a top-5 team, and Bridges bordered on spectacular in the second half. But the Spartans have to start showing more muscle. Or else.

“I’m embarrassed, to be honest with you, that a team would get 25 offensive rebounds against us, I don’t care how big they are,” Izzo said. “Never in a million years did I think we’d get out rebounded like that.’’

Bridges added, “Michigan State is known for out-toughing people, and they out-toughed us today.”

6. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. will be a freshman impossible to take your eyes off. Especially if you’re an NBA scout.

7. John Calipari will need all his Hall of Fame skills to hone Kentucky. This is the youngest team he’s ever had – which is a high bar in Lexington. The Wildcats showed talent and resolve in chasing Kansas to the wire, but also a certain wobbliness. Such as 16 turnovers by four players. Or a halftime stat of one offensive rebound, while Kansas had 15. Or shaky possessions at the end.

Calipari visited and revisited the challenge in his post-game address.

“I’m trying to get them to think less and play more, and just worry about competing . . .

RELATED: Andy Katz offers his thoughts after Kansas ekes out a big win vs. UK

“We’ve got so much teaching. The thought of what I have to do and what our staff has to do is kind of tiring to me. Like, I don’t want to think about it . . .

“We’re a ways away to being what we need to be. But to play in a game like this in that environment and have a chance to win, wow. A bunch of freshmen did pretty good . . .

“I’ve got to keep picking them, and I’ve got to keep teaching and coaching and encouraging and prodding. I can’t accept what they’re giving. I’ve got to keep pushing them. I’ve been very hard on these guys in practice, probably harder on this group than any team I’ve coached . . .

“We don’t have a leader yet. So I had to lead. I don’t want to lead. I’m too old to lead. I’m too old to stand the whole game. But they need me in that role right now, because no one has taken this yet.”

MBB: Your complete guide for college basketball’s early season tournaments and events

But check back in a month or so.

8. Replacing the considerable offense of Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson is very much a work in progress at Kansas. You could tell by Tuesday’s shooting percentages.

“I think all of us are still adjusting,” Malik Newman said. “But it’s still early, so that’s a good thing.”

Every starter went at least 32 minutes. Bill Self will need more help. The Jayhawks led Kentucky most of the night, but were too weary to do a lot of executing at the end.

Still, the results weren’t as important as the lessons Tuesday night.

Take it from Self.

“I don’t think the Champions Classic, the outcome of this, has anything to do with how successful your season is. It’s an all-win and no-lose game … I think what this game does early in the season — if you can stand to watch it, because I know it wasn’t very pretty – it makes you more aware of who you are.”

Or Izzo.

“This is about learning where your warts are. I’m going to go home, I’m going to have a book full of warts.”

Or Calipari.

“You can only learn about your team in games like this.”

Or Krzyzewski.

“This was such a great idea. Whether you win or lose, it’s a great idea.”

Especially this year. Illumination for four contenders, therapy for a shaken sport.

Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 38 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.

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