What the Champions Classic Taught Us About the 2016–17 NCAA Basketball Season
The atmosphere was electric at Madison Square Garden this week as four of the top teams in college basketball faced off.
Not only was this the kick-off to the season, but also these games could be a preview of the Final Four, as Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State showcased great talent and mid-season form. They gave us a preview of what we can expect this year.
Freshman talent and development may be the key to success this season.
Kentucky is once again loaded with talent, having brought in the top-rated freshman class this year with De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Wenyen Gabriel, Edrice Bam Adebayo, and Sacha Killeya-Jones. They relied heavily on their freshman in their 69–48 domination of the Spartans. Miles Bridges is MSU’s best player as a freshman, but he struggled against the Wildcats, ending the game with only six points, 12 rebounds, and nine turnovers. This is one of the youngest teams Tom Izzo has ever coached; the Spartans have not found a rhythm yet, but they could as conference play begins.
Kansas showcased forward Josh Jackson as its most talented young player in the 77–75 buzzer-beater victory over Duke, and the Jayhawks’ success will depend on him. The 6’8” star guard helped create a run for Kansas in the second half, scoring 11 of his 15 points. The health and performance of Duke’s six super freshmen will be critical to the Blue Devils’ season. Without star first-year players Jason Tatum, Harry Giles, and Marques Bolden, Duke was unable to hold off Kansas’ nine-deep roster attack.
Excellent guard play wins games.
As the NCAA tournament usually proves, teams with experience and talent at guard succeed. The combination of Frank Mason Jr. and DeVonte Graham led Kansas over Duke, with Mason Jr. taking advantage of his strength and quickness to score 17 of his 21 points in the second half, including the winning pull-up jumper with 1.8 seconds left. The Jayhawks’ ability to penetrate at will led to high-percentage shots for them and their teammates.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had nothing but high praise for Mason and Graham. “It’s a big-time backcourt,” he said after the game. “Those two kids are just so solid…I thought they really knocked us back at the start of the second half for about 10 minutes. And, to our guys’ credit, the last eight to 10 minutes of the game, I thought we played really well, really well against a really good team.”
One outstanding senior can be worth his weight in gold.
Frank Mason Jr. played with poise and confidence in leading the Jayhawks past the Blue Devils. He shrugged off early foul trouble courtesy of the whistle-happy refs, remained patient, and exploded in the second half to lead the Kansas comeback. Great players who resist the urge to leave college early are rare, but when, like Mason Jr., they stay in school, they provide seasoned leadership to their teams. Barring injury, Mason and the Jayhawks should have another great year.
Duke may have lost, but the team is loaded.
The Blue Devils played only six players against Kansas, as their premiere freshmen were all sidelined with various leg injuries. When healthy, Tatum, Giles, and Bolden will provide a potent front line for the Devils. Without them on Tuesday, Duke was dominated down low by the Kansas front line. Despite that, Duke led at half, and it took that last-second jumper by Mason Jr. to overcome the Devils.
When they get their super threesome back, to combine with fellow freshman Frank Jackson, returning All-America guard Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, and Amile Jefferson, Duke will be the team to beat.
Malik Monk may be one of the best freshmen to ever play at Kentucky.
Against MSU, he showed incredible athleticism while draining seven of 12 three-pointers and scoring 23 points. Kentucky coach John Calipari gave Monk a high appraisal, stating, “He is one of the most athletic kids that I’ve coached. He’s a little antsy right now. His mind moves really fast. When his feet move fast, his mind moves fast. So I’ve got to slow down his mind and let him see the game a little different. That’s all I’m talking about to him. But athletically, jumping, speed — all those things? Whoa. He can defend. He’s tough. He’s got a curious mind. He’s got a quick mind. He reacts to stuff quick. There’s things that I can’t teach.”
Photographs by Lance King/Getty Images (Kansas, 2); Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images (Allen)