In the first leg of the Champions Classic, re-loaded No. 1 Kansas proved why it’s ranked at the top, taking down Michigan State in a 92–87 win in Indy. Three thoughts on the Jayhawks’ dominant win:
1. The Jayhawks’ dynamic freshmen are legit
The freshman class headlining the Champions Classic, and rightfully so, is Duke’s terrific trio. But Bill Self’s first-years dominated in the first act. Grimes, the No. 8 recruit in the incoming class, displayed his sweet stroke. The Texas native drilled his first three treys, finishing with 21 points while shooting 6 of 10 from downtown. Meanwhile, Devon Dotson, the overall 24th-ranked recruit out of Charlotte, was smooth. He poured in 16 points, dished three assists and looks to be a slippery guard in Self’s backcourt with a knack for sneaking into the lane. He also disrupted Michigan State’s offense, adding three steals. David McCormack, the fourth-ranked center, even held his own when Azubuike had to take a seat with two fouls in the first half. He played just five minutes, but showed some nice flashes.
Grimes was the star. With Dedric Lawson, the Jayhawks’ star player, playing sloppily—he missed 13 of 18 shots, but did finish with 20 points and 14 boards—Grimes provided a playmaking threat from the first tip. He’s clearly a special player who made an instant impact tonight.
2. Udoka Azubuike is ready to block, rebound and dunk on college basketball (if he stays in the game)
Last year, the center from Nigeria shot a mind-boggling 77.0% from the field, one of the best marks in NCAA history. During the offseason, Azubuike declared for the draft, learned what the NBA world wanted him to improve on and returned to Lawrence for his junior season. In his 2018–19 debut, he looked incredibly polished. Self made a concerted effort to feed the 7-foot Azubuike, taking advantage of a juicy height mismatch with 6’9” Nick Ward in the paint. Azubuike dominated the matchup on both ends early on. Ward opened with five consecutive misses and two turnovers, and Azubuike blocked three shots in the first half. His post moves on the offensive end looked leaps and bounds more polished than last season, too. Perhaps the sequence that most exhibited Azubuike’s impact was around the 11:00 mark of the first half: The Kansas center stuffed a driving Aaron Henry at the rim. On the other end, Lawson missed a three, and Azubuike fought to tip the ball out to Grimes, who drained a deep shot.
From the 12-minute mark of the first half to the under-four media timeout, Kansas went on a 26–11 run, and Azubuike was a major key. Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, foul trouble plagued him, and he only played 20 minutes. He did rebound, because with five minutes left, he re-entered the game and squashed a 15–6 Michigan State charge with an and-one and a rainbow hook over Ward. His free-throw stroke looked a bit better (3 for 7 tonight), but it still needs major work.
3. Michigan State misses Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr.
The Spartans had some explosive spurts and hung around—they cut the Jayhawks’ lead to three points late in the second half—but Kansas smothered them in most aspects. Even though it was a tight game late, Self’s squad was in control wire-to-wire. The Spartans could have used Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., who both left for the NBA, on the glass and with creating buckets down low, where Michigan State was manhandled, allowing 40 points in the paint and scoring just 24. Early on, the Spartans really seemed to miss Bridges and Jackson Jr. as they tried to keep up with Kansas’s athletes.
Shooting just 14 of 25 from the free-throw line in the first half was self-destructive and contributed to a 14-point halftime deficit, not to mention drawing Izzo’s ire. Now, their fight was impressive. The Spartans trailed by 17 midway through the second half and rallied back to make Kansas sweat a bit as the clock wound down. They were dynamite from three, shooting 52%. Cassius Winston, who last year shot nearly 50% from behind the arc, stepped up. His 18 points and 11 assists kept the Spartans afloat. Kenny Goins (17 points, 11 rebounds) played a solid game and Josh Langford (18 points, 4 of 6 from three) was lights out from downtown. Those were nice performances, but they just weren't enough, especially with Ward and Langford piling up fouls in the second half. Eighteen turnovers didn’t help the Spartans’ case, either.
At this point, Michigan State just lacks that extra punch you need to take down a prolific team like Kansas, and the deep Jayhawks looked like a legit title contender.