What we learned from Tuesday’s Champions Classic, where Kentucky and Michigan State proved victorious.
CHICAGO — Prime time is learning time, and school was in session on Tuesday night at the United Center. College basketball technically began on Friday, but the Champions Classic doubleheader felt like the real kickoff for the new season. There was much to see, and much to be gleaned. Here’s what we learned:
Kentucky 74, Duke 63
1. Not all freshman classes are equal.
Kentucky freshman center Skal Labissiere was ranked No. 1 by Rivals.com in the high school class of 2015. Duke forward Brandon Ingram was No. 4. Three of Duke’s freshman reserves, point guard Derryck Thornton (14), Chase Jeter (16) and Luke Kennard (25) were likewise ranked in the top 25.
You know what else they have in common? They were all non-factors Tuesday night.
That’s a far cry from, say, two years ago, when Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Duke’s Jabari Parker dazzled a national television audience at this same event. And it’s certainly a long way from last April, when Duke won the NCAA championship with a starting lineup that featured three freshmen.
Kentucky’s other two freshmen, guards Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe, performed well, but from a national perspective, this freshman class is comparatively weak. That doesn’t mean the young guns aren’t fun to watch, but aside from a very few exceptions, they are not going to step in, dominate or electrify at this early stage. There were some very good young prospects on the court, but very few good young players. That theme is going to recur throughout the season.
2. Kentucky’s backcourt is even better than we thought.
Many preseason pundits ranked the Wildcats’ backcourt near or at the top of the country, but if Tuesday is any indicator, we could be in store for something truly sublime—and nearly unprecedented. We’re used to seeing teams with two point guards operating side by side and winning big. (Think UConn’s Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, as a recent example.) But I can’t think of a team that had three guards who can all take their defenders off the dribble, set up their teammates and nail long-range jumpers. Not only do Murray, Briscoe and 5'9" sophomore Tyler Ulis have those skills, they also have an innate feel for the game that belies their years.
Whereas last season's Wildcats built their identity around their frontcourt, this edition is going to feature its three-headed perimeter. They even have Calipari running more of the dribble drive motion offense he ran at Memphis. That is a fun style to watch, and on Tuesday it was lethal.
The biggest impact was made by the smallest player on the floor, as Ulis finished with 18 points, six assists, four rebounds and zero—count 'em, zero—turnovers. And that’s despite missing all four of his three-point attempts. (Ulis sank 42.9% from three range as a freshman.) Ulis may be small, but he has great leadership abilities and a gift for the position you can’t teach. Calipari likened him to a hitter who is able to see the seams on the baseball before swinging the bat. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has coached his fair share of great point guards over the years, found himself in awe of Ulis even as he was shredding Duke’s defense.
“God was good to him,” Krzyzewski said. “He didn’t get height but he has heart that’s five times bigger than most people. He has great balance. Even though he’s short, he’s got long arms, and he’s got poise. It doesn’t look like he gets tired, and he’s in complete control of his team. Even though I was competing against him, I admired his presence and his face throughout the game. It was the face of a winner.”
3. Grayson Allen is not ready for his close-up.
When we last saw Duke’s 6'4" sophomore guard on a big stage, he was emerging from anonymity to rescue the Blue Devils in the second half of the national championship game against Wisconsin. In the first two games of the season, Allen had 26 and 28 points against Siena and Bryant, respectively. So Tuesday night was a new experience for him on two fronts. It was his first time at the top of a scouting report while going up against an elite team. And it showed.
This is not a matter of ability—Allen has that in spades. It is a matter of maturation. For example, Allen scored many of his points the first two games using his signature move, which is to beat his man off the dribble and then lift the ball with one hand in hopes of scoring high off the glass or getting fouled trying. The Duke coaches had warned Allen that that move wouldn’t work against the likes of Labissiere and Marcus Lee, but he tried it anyway. The result was an unsightly six points on 2-for-11 shooting (he was 0-for-9 in the first half). He also committed four turnovers.
“Grayson would tell you he didn’t play well,” Krzyzewski said. “You can’t expose the ball on a drive against shot blockers the way he did. We talked about it, but if your habit is to do that, he went to his habit, even though his habit was not going to be successful tonight.”
Michigan State 79, Kansas 73
1. Denzel Valentine could be the face of college basketball this season.
This is not to say that Valentine will be national player of the year, though it would be foolish to rule out that possibility after his time-capsule-quality 29-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist, one-turnover performance. That made him just the fourth player in school history to turn in a triple-double. But it was the way Valentine accrued those numbers that was most striking. He is not particularly tall or quick or strong. He is, however, supremely skilled and plays with great poise and guile. He is also—get this—a senior who has improved a little bit each year he has been at Michigan State. Isn’t that what college is supposed to be about?
Valentine held forth in the postgame press conference with confidence and charisma. He is at ease in the public eye. And he’s a great story—a kid from Lansing whose dad also went to Michigan State. Spartans coach Tom Izzo compared his game and his leadership to Draymond Green’s, which is high praise indeed. Valentine is the best player on one of the best teams in the country, and he enjoys the limelight. We may have to suffer through a lot of Valentine’s Day puns in the coming months, but it will be worth it. The kid does have a lot of heart.
2. Michigan State needs to be careful not to become too dependent on the three-point shot.
Izzo said he felt embarrassed at halftime because he had spent the entire preseason predicting this would be the best three-point shooting team he ever had. The Spartans had decent looks in the first half, but they only shot 3-for-10 from behind the arc. At one point they trailed by 13 points, although they managed to crawl back to within six at halftime. They shot much better from the behind the arc in the second half (6-for-11), but for the game they only attempted 16 free throws to Kansas’ 30. That’s not how you get Capone.
It’s also not Tom Izzo basketball. This is going to be an issue all season long. Even a great three-point shooting team goes through droughts during the course of a season. It is almost certain to happen at an inopportune time during the NCAA tournament, when the stakes get higher and the pressure is on. If a team tethers its identity purely to outside shooting, its ability to shift to Plan B is diminished.
I will add one caveat: Keep your eye on freshman Matt McQuaid. He might be the best high school shooter I’ve ever seen. McQuaid came off the bench to nail two big threes in the second half (he was 3-for-3 on the night) and also followed one of those makes up with a big-time block at the other end. He is the type of game-changing marksman who I believe will provide this kind of lift all season long.
3. Cheick Diallo will not be a savior for Kansas—if he plays at all.
As we all know by now, Diallo is a 6'9" freshman forward from Mali who is enrolled at Kansas but has not yet been declared eligible by the NCAA because of concerns about his curriculum at his prep school in New York. Diallo has become such a cause celebre that I fear people are building an unrealistic expectation as to what he can bring if and when he joins the lineup.
Even without Diallo, the Jayhawks have much to be encouraged about. Their perimeter players underperformed, with four of them combining to shoot 10-for-40 from the field. (Sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham was particularly bad, making just 1 of his 9 attempts and going 0-for-4 from three-point range.) They got out-rebounded by 10 and gave up 13 second-chance points. Yet, they were in position to win the game until the final minutes. All they needed was one or two more stops, and another timely bucket or two from 6'8" senior forward Perry Ellis, who finished with a team-high 21 points and six rebounds.
During his postgame press conference, Jayhawks coach Bill Self said if his team is going to win big, it would need more back-to-the-basket scoring. When I asked him afterward if it was hard to watch this team without thinking about how much Diallo would help, Self shook his head. “Cheick might help us defensively and on the backboard, but he’s really raw,” he said. Self is still holding out hope that Diallo will soon be cleared, but there doesn’t appear to be anything in the works to justify that optimism—at least, not in the short term.
So Kansas’s problems are fixable, but that doesn’t mean Diallo is the fix. The Jayhawks just need to tighten a few things up, learn from their mistakes, and get better. They may have flunked this early test, but their education is just beginning.