ATLANTA -- Got hope?
If you're Michigan State, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky, the answer is definitively yes. Only two teams could leave the Champions Classic at the Georgia Dome with wins (they turned out to be Michigan State and Duke, who beat Kansas and Kentucky, respectively). But all four of these teams left with reason to believe that they are very good and getting better. Here's what we learned.
The good: Keith Appling's sophomore season was one long period of adjustment. He came to Michigan State primarily to be a scorer, but he was pressed into point guard's duties last year after Korie Lucious was forced to leave school. The burden of running Tom Izzo's offense detracted from Appling's shooting. He made just 25 percent from three-point range.
Over the summer, Appling set about working long and hard on his outside shooting. The results of that effort were evident Tuesday night as Appling made the two biggest shots of the game down the stretch for the Spartans -- a three-pointer with 1:36 to play that put the Spartans up by four, and an artful up-and-under layup that gave them a three-point cushion with 14 seconds to play. The best thing about those plays: They were both late in the shot clock.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was quite obviously pleased with what he saw from his junior point guard. "He was not a very good shooter last year, but he got better the old-fashioned way. He locked himself in the gym," Izzo said. "As a coach, it's fun to see a player get rewarded."
It was also good to see Spartans freshman guard Gary Harris bounce back from his deer-in-the-headlights debacle against UConn. In fact, it was good to see all the Spartans show some fortitude after Izzo got after them. After they returned from Germany, he held a long meeting on Saturday nigh and then held two rigorous practices on Sunday before they all left for Atlanta on Monday. The Spartans could have come in here demoralized, but instead they looked refreshed. Said Izzo, "We had a lot of energy, because we didn't waste any against UConn."
Tom Izzo happy and sarcastic -- a good sign if ever there was one.
The bad: The Spartans were once again too careless with the ball. They had 17 turnovers Tuesday, coming on the heels of their 15-turnover performance against UConn. Keep in mind that their backup point guard, sophomore Travis Trice, was not available because of a concussion he suffered in the second half of that first game. Also, five of their turnovers against Kansas were committed by sophomore forward Branden Dawson. We can cut Dawson some slack because he is still rusty after tearing an ACL eight months ago, but turnovers plagued Michigan State all last season. The Spartans have got to tighten up.
Also, for the second straight game, Michigan State got limited offensive production from the post. Derrick Nix had eight points on 2-for-8 shooting. Adreian Payne had four points. In fact, the Spartans' most impressive post scorer was 6-foot-9 sophomore Alex Gauna, who had six points in 12 minutes off the bench.
The hope: The biggest short-term improvement you're going to see will come from Dawson. He has great strength and versatility on both ends of the floor, and he has the kind of aggressive mentality Izzo likes. As Dawson finds his rhythm and Trice rejoins the lineup, the turnovers should be less of an issue.
The good: Even in losing, the Jayhawks showed that they have much more depth than many people realized. Bill Self played nine different guys, and every single one of them scored. There's a reason the Jayhawks owned a five-point lead with five minutes to play. "We were actually pretty good for thirty-five mintues," Self said. "We tried to protect a lead as opposed to playing. We were soft defensively the last five minutes, and that was the difference."
Senior guard Elijah Johnson led the way scoring-wise for Kansas (16 points), but the real revelation was 6-5 freshman Ben McLemore. He did not play last year because of academics, but he showed tonight why people in Lawrence have been raving about him. McLemore is a dynamic athelte who scored 14 points (on 5-for-7 shooting) but left you wanting more. "He's an efficient player, but seven shots are not enough for him," Self said. "He's has to learn to plug himself into the game more."
In other words, the Jayhawks were revealed to have a stellar backcourt duo, one of the best defensive centers in basketball (Jeff Withey) and a deep bench that will allow Self to mix and match his lineups and foment internal competition. Pretty good for the second game of the season.
The bad: It's one thing to be young. It's quite another to be soft. This is the theme that Self has hit on frequently during the preseason, and he returned to it often tonight. "We have a long way to go with understanding how to compete and be tougher mentally," he said.
Exhibit A was 6-8 freshman forward Perry Ellis. Because Withey is offensively limited, the Jayhawks will need Ellis to score in the paint. However, due to his slender build and laid-back demeanor, he only played 17 minutes tonight and scored four points. Instead, Self preferred to go with Jamari Traylor, a 6-8, 220-pound freshman who packs a lot more muscle and knows how to use it. "Perry's going to be a good player, but right now he's all finesse," Self said. "Michigan State is not the best team to finesse against."
The hope: With the Jayhawks needing a three-pointer on their final possession, Michigan State smartly blitzed Elijah Johnson to force him to give up the ball. It ended up in the hands of Releford, who is not nearly as good a long-range shooter.
In the future -- hopefully the near-future -- that ball will end up in the hands of McLemore. He may be the team's most talented player, but right now he is not the best player. The sooner McLemore figures out how to be a star, the sooner he will take these Jayhawks over the moon.
The good: This is not a vintage Duke team from a talent standpoint, but the Blue Devils have a quality senior triumverate that can take them deep into the NCAA tournament. The problem is that one of those seniors, 6-2 guard Seth Curry, is hobbled by what is probably a stress reaction in his shin. As a result, Curry has practiced just four times in the last four weeks, and he could only go about half the time in those. Not only is he in pain, but that inaction could hurt his conditioning and rhythm.
That's why it's so amazing that Curry has been Duke's best player in its first two games. During the second half tonight, he was the best player on the court, which is why Duke was able to increase its lead over Kentucky early in the second half after 6-10 senior forward Mason Plumlee went to the bench with four fouls. Curry scored a game-high 23 points (3-for-5 from three) and made all six of his free throws. "Seth was terrific. He was the difference maker in the game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I'm shocked at his level of conditioning."
Curry's health has cast a shadow over this program the last two months. If his performance on Tuesday night is prologue of what's to come, then maybe this will end up being a vintage Duke team after all.
The bad: There wasn't a whole lot Duke did wrong in this game. Plumlee had five turnovers and only three rebounds, but he was such a stud on the block that it was hardly noticed. Freshman guard Rasheed jacked up 14 shots and only made three, but all of those makes came from behind the three-point line, including two at pivotal moments in the second half.
On the other hand, freshman forward Alex Murphy was once again a non-factor. He only played two minutes, which is two more than he played in the opener against Georgia State. The Duke coaches have been hoping that Murphy could play himself into the starting lineup, but that is obviously not going to happen anytime soon.
The hope: The only way for Curry to heal is for him not to play or practice for six months. Since he cannot apply for a sixth year because he sat out a year after transferring from Liberty, he is going to have to tough it out. However, he was not in much pain after the opener against Georgia State, and the injury obviously did not bother him tonight. Duke's biggest hope is for this to be the case moving forward.
The good: These players are so young, everything they do is a learning experience. I mean everything. How to travel, how to eat, how to sleep, how to practice and especially how to deal with this kind of big-time environment. From my courtside seat at the Dome, I noticed a lot of quizzical glances and confused looks on the Wildcats' faces. But that's okay. That's what learning looks like.
Two players in particular grew up. The first was 6-7 forward Alex Poythress. Gone were the tentative, ill-advised shots he took in the Maryland win. In their place were aggressive drives, fundamentally sound defense and one redonkulous putback slam. "He was a beast. That's what he needed to look like," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "He's not a two-guard. He's a beast. So be a beast. I don't want to see any of the cute stuff."
The other player who took an important step forward was 6-5 freshman Archie Goodwin. He is another gifted athlete with an explosive first step, but in high school Goodwin could rely on his talent to blow by slower defenders. Things have changed now that he's in college -- and they've really changed with Goodwin being forced to play point guard in place of the ailing Ryan Harrow. Goodwin is having to think the game at a level that he has never done in his life. Sure, he made bad decisions against Duke (four turnovers) and took careless shots (5-for-12 from the field). But he left Atlanta a smarter player than he was when he got here. That's a good development for Kentucky regardless of what the scoreboard showed.
The bad: Duke saw that 6-10 sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer was Kentucky's best player against Maryland, so the coaches gameplanned against him. It worked: Wiltjer scored five points and did not attempt a single free throw. It is unnerving that he could be taken out of the mix so easily. Consider that for much of the night, Wiltjer was being guarded by Duke senior forward Ryan Kelly, who is nobody's idea of a lockdown defender.
Likewise, 7-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein was only on the floor for six minutes. You have to wonder how long it will take him to get his confidence back.
Finally, the situation with Ryan Harrow is becoming more of a concern. Harrow has been battling severe flu-like symptons for over a week now and is not getting better. He didn't even make the trip to Atlanta, and Calipari said after the game he shouldn't have played Harrow against Maryland.
Calipari said that Harrow took a blood test today for mononucleiosis, but the results were not yet available. Not only does Harrow, a junior transfer from N.C. State, need to get game reps, but his teammates need to get used to him running the point. With a team this young, there is no time to waste.
The hope: Even though Goodwin is benefiting from having to play the point, this team needs Harrow back, and fast. So hopefully he doesn't have mono and will be back in the fold in the next week or so. I also think Calipari was pleasantly surprised at how well his pick-and-roll sets worked with Goodwin and 6-10 freshman Nerlens Noel. You can expect to see a lot more of that.
Mostly, this team just needs more practices, more games, more everything. "We're still trying to figure out how we're playing," Calipari said. "We don't play hard enough yet. We don't compete on every possession yet. We don't go after every rebound yet. We don't know how to finish games yet. We haven't figured out totally how we're going to play."
In other words, Calipari is learning the game right alongside his players. But when you have this much talent, the learning curve points straight up. That's the hope, anyway.