INDIANAPOLIS – The first thing you need to know about Tuesday’s Champions Classic here is that Duke beat perennial Big Ten power Michigan State with one of the most talented teams that Mike Krzyzewski has ever had, and by the end of the night, an optimist figured Duke could finish as the national runner-up.
That’s how good Kentucky looked against Kansas. John Calipari’s team did not just win the game, 72-40; it shoved everybody else in the country off to the side of the stage. Cal once boasted that “We ARE college basketball,” and in a sense this season, he will be right.
The question of the year is whether anybody can beat Kentucky. Only a few teams are even capable. Just for example, I don’t love Montana State’s chances in Lexington Sunday, and I haven’t scouted Texas-Arlington yet, but I kind of feel like if Texas-Arlington had 10 NBA prospects, including a few who appear to be 8 feet tall, I would have heard about it by now.
It will be so much fun to watch Kentucky blow through most of its opponents, inflating the hype balloon every week. It will be fun to see how long Calipari’s two-platoon system will last -- he brought in a new wave of five players every few minutes against Kansas, and it was brutally effective. Calipari said the Jayhawks faced reinforcements, not substitutes. He is right.
We are headed for a classic American sports story. We just don’t know how it will end.
First, let’s explain what makes this Kentucky team special, even by Kentucky standards. The talent is one thing. But it’s the combination of talent and size that is most impressive. Karl-Anthony Towns is 6-foot-11 and will probably be a top-three pick in the next NBA draft. Willie Cauley-Stein will be a solid NBA center, and more than solid defensively. Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson and Trey Lyles are all at least 6-foot-9 and really good.
Even better for Calipari is that this team’s attitude is more in line with the 2012 NCAA champions than the 2013 team that lost in the first round of the NIT or even last year’s team, which made the NCAA title game but was a mess for much of the season.
Cauley-Stein talked about “the energy factor” on defense. Calipari, ever the salesman, said he can use his two-platoon system where 10 guys play half the game only because his kids are such lovely people, and he is the luckiest coach in the world, and who wants a lollipop? The Kentucky players all seem engaged, in a way they never really were last season. They cheer for each other from the bench. They defend intensely. Maybe it’s the threat of being benched, because the team is so deep. But there is a very different feel to this team.
This combination of size, skill and energy explains why Kentucky defended like it was putting out a fire. Kansas has this freshman, Cliff Alexander, who will surely be a lottery pick, and not just on potential -- he is a thick, fast, skilled, tough player from Chicago. Kentucky made Alexander look like he was in junior high. It was incredible. Alexander had nowhere to go. Everywhere he turned, another 7-footer was waiting.
If you watched this game, and you knew that Kansas is one of the most talented teams in the country, and then you heard Kansas coach Bill Self say he was hoping his postgame water bottle was filled with vodka ... well, it was easy to conclude that we should just hand Kentucky the national championship trophy and be done with it. Sure, Texas, Louisville and North Carolina are on the schedule. But Kentucky should beat all of them, and the Southeastern Conference is awful. Maybe Kentucky loses a game. But not two. And maybe none.
And this is where it gets tricky. Every win ramps up the pressure. Every win creates this expectation that Kentucky is supposed to win the national championship -- and no town in America fosters that expectation like Lexington.
Maybe Kentucky wins it all anyway. But it’s pretty likely that in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats will be in a really tight game, perhaps even trailing. What does Calipari do then? If he is still using his platoons, he can’t easily adjust his rotation to take advantage of matchups or hot hands. If he stops using platoons and just plays his best players, the other guys could get awfully grumpy. Not many future NBA players are happy sitting on the bench in college. And if he uses platoons all season and then stops in the middle of an NCAA tournament game, his players may think he is panicking.
And remember: A college basketball season is almost comically short. Kentucky will only play 30-something games. Probably 10 of those will be against such inferior competition, we shouldn’t take them seriously. Another 15 will probably be double-digit wins. That leaves only a few tight games, and if Calipari sticks with the platoons, even his best players will only play 20 or so minutes per game anyway. That’s just not a lot of floor time.
At some point in March, Kentucky will face a team that has length inside, discipline defensively and great guard play. The Wildcats will be forced to take jump shots. Kansas likes to run, and it’s easy to think you should run against Kentucky to get away from all those big guys, but the truth is the big guys run too well for that to work. Some smart opposing coach will slow the game down and limit the number of possessions. That could frustrate Kentucky players who are used to dominating in short spurts.
How will Kentucky respond then? The answer will determine the national championship. Keep inflating that hype balloon. Let’s see if it pops in March.