While perspective is always critical when evaluating early-season games—particularly the very first ones—the Champions Classic has traditionally served as an effective checkpoint for four of men’s college basketball’s top programs, with Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State more often than not having some say over the major story lines of a given season.
Mike Krzyzewski’s pending retirement and the debut of star freshman Paolo Banchero placed Duke front and center in this year’s discourse, but there were worthwhile takeaways and key questions to note for all four teams. The Blue Devils topped Kentucky 79–71 in a memorable nightcap that was preceded by Kansas’s less notable 87–74 win over Michigan State. With an eye toward setting expectations for the rest of the season, here’s what stood out most to this writer at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
Duke is back
Say what you want about the packaging of the Krzyzewski farewell tour, but it looks pretty clear right now that Duke may have a contending-caliber team on its hands. The energy surrounding the Blue Devils was starkly different from where we left them last season, buoyed in part by an energetic crowd but mostly enhanced by a much more talented roster. Banchero was stellar most of the night and looks more than capable of being the offensive focal point of a quality team, with the ability to play out of several different spots on the floor and create unfriendly mismatches for opponents with his heft and skill. His case as the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft was fully evident. Banchero is going to give defenses fits, and has the passing acumen to play out of double teams and elevate his teammates while drawing primary attention.
The real surprise, at least from my perspective, was just how good Duke’s supporting cast looked. Freshman Trevor Keels assumed a pivotal backcourt role out of the gate, and while there will be some growing pains, he began to simultaneously answer key questions about who Duke’s secondary scorer might be and what type of guard play we can expect on a nightly basis. Keels isn’t wildly athletic, but he’s strong, crafty, and mostly had his way with Kentucky’s guards, operating in and out of ball screens and playing a pretty methodical style. He was billed as a shooter coming out of high school, but clearly, there’s more to him than that.
The other major revelation was the reemergence of Wendell Moore Jr., who enters his junior year with a chance to change the narrative around his college career. Moore, Keels, Banchero and Jeremy Roach gave Duke four capable ballhandlers and play-initiators in the starting lineup, and are going to make the Blue Devils tricky to guard. Moore has embraced a glue-guy role and didn’t force up bad shots, and while his jumper remains in question, he’ll have opportunities to bolster the offense as a distributor and cutter. Having Banchero to draw attention in the middle of the floor makes everyone else’s life easier, and Moore is a pretty indispensable piece of this team due to his experience and versatility on the defensive end.
The rest of the team isn’t bad, either—consider that Duke has the luxury of easing in All-American AJ Griffin off the bench as he works back from injury. Mark Williams wasn’t great on Tuesday, but Krzyzewski will platoon him with grad transfer Theo John, who offers some steady, physical interior play. Having those guys at center takes defensive pressure off Banchero, who’s not a natural rim protector by trade. Nominal point guard Roach led the team in minutes, and won’t have to score all that much to be effective in his role.
We’ll see what this all adds up to—this recipe is still heavily reliant on freshmen, which can be dicey when we’re talking contenders—but Duke clearly has the right mix of players to be a quality defensive team, in addition to its considerable offensive firepower. The Blue Devils are long, rangy and looked fairly cohesive as a unit out of the gate. Kentucky drew within four points but never led by more than one, and spent most of the game playing catch-up. Duke’s Nov. 26 game against Gonzaga may prove the better test, and this team could be even better two weeks from now. There’s a long way to go, but this group could be good enough to give Krzyzewski a chance to end his run on a very high note. At the very least, the Blue Devils are way better than last year.
Kentucky has some assembly required
The evolution of John Calipari’s various Kentucky teams has always been gradual and often slow, and it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what to expect from the Wildcats until the calendar year flips and conference play begins. Last year was an exception—Kentucky was bad pretty much from the outset—and this year should still bring a return to form. But it didn’t happen right away against a more talented Duke team, and it’s clear that it may take some time for the Wildcats to find the right mix among many new players.
The difference this year, of course, is that Calipari is relying more than ever on transfers, as opposed to one-and-done freshmen. That happened somewhat out of necessity after some high-profile misses on the recruiting trail. Only one freshman, TyTy Washington Jr., played real minutes for Kentucky on Tuesday night, and he struggled mightily to create good shots for himself. Daimion Collins played two minutes before Calipari saw red and opted to lean on Jacob Toppin and Lance Ware instead. The Wildcats’ two best players right now are Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler, and positive efforts from both guys still weren’t enough to tip the scales. At a glance, this just doesn’t feel like a group that can out-talent most high-major opponents every night. That said, Kentucky does have a pretty balanced and deep roster, which deserves some time to gestate.
Calipari spoke postgame about the need to put less pressure and fewer minutes on Wheeler’s plate—the 5' 8" guard played all but two against Duke, which led to 10 assists but also seven turnovers—and that will require someone else to step up as a playmaker, be it Washington or returner Davion Mintz. Beyond those three guys, there’s just not a lot of creativity on the roster. Someone other than Wheeler, who led the SEC in assists last year at Georgia, has to help Kentucky score efficiently in the halfcourt. Kellan Grady’s role right now is primarily to launch threes, and Keion Brooks isn’t much of a scorer by trade. The offense is a work in progress with no obvious salve, but there were also stretches Tuesday when the Wildcats caught a rhythm and played comfortably together. They’ll need to cohere consistently in that way to cover for the lack of a true go-to scorer.
The good news is that Kentucky does have considerable potential as a defensive team, with a variety of physical, athletic players capable of eventually forming a pretty solid unit. Toppin, Ware and Collins bring different skills and body types on the defensive end, and only so many can be on the floor at once, particularly when slower-footed Tshiebwe is in the game. But it’s easy to envision a version of this team that figures out how to effectively run off of stops, and turns good defense into effective offense without having to bend itself out of shape as a halfcourt team. The key to this all working is probably Washington, who didn’t have a great night, but remains Kentucky’s shiftiest guard and has the length and size to be a defensive pest. He has the type of skills that can theoretically blend weird lineups, and if he eventually emerges as the Wildcats’ best player, it’ll lead to good things. Whether or not that happens, we’ll see. Regardless, some improvement is due here, and they are at least in better shape than they were this time last season.
Can Kansas learn to love the pass?
Frankly, I didn’t think all that much of Kansas’s 13-point win over a less experienced and less talented Michigan State team. We actually may not learn that much about the Jayhawks for a while. What we know right now is that they’re a much older team with enough returning talent to beat most opponents on a given night. The age factor is going to be a big boost, and Ochai Agbaji’s 29-point performance was certainly encouraging. The key players on this Kansas team have been around the block together, and they relied successfully on turning Michigan State turnovers into easy transition baskets. This is a formula that can work most nights.
What worries me a little bit is that this Kansas team is thin on quality passers and creators, and that ball movement may never be its strong point. This was a problem last season, too. The Jayhawks brought in transfers Remy Martin and Joseph Yesufu to help solve their scoring woes, but both players are shot-hunters by nature. The team’s best passer is Dajuan Harris Jr., who along with Agbaji and Christian Braun played the entire game, but totaled just four assists (to his credit, he didn’t turn it over once). Bill Self is a smart offensive coach who’s been able to get by in the past, but there’s just not a true, bona fide playmaker on the roster, and the Jayhawks are thin on NBA-caliber talent. That trickles down into limited easy opportunities for their bigs (David McCormack shot just 4 of 11, and tends to struggle whenever he’s not spoon-fed attempts). I worry that there will be nights where the offense grinds to a standstill, and I generally think it’s a bad idea to rely on guys with reckless shot selection to climb out of holes.
We’ll see what this all adds up to in time, and to be fair, being a good defensive team that plays opportunistic if not aesthetically interesting offense is a recipe for winning games in college basketball. But Self is going to have to push the right buttons with his guards all season if this is going to be a legitimate Final Four–caliber team, and that could be a pretty tall task, even by his standards.
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Who’s going to score for Michigan State?
It’s way too early to be completely concerned about the Spartans, but on top of a middling defensive effort, they’re going to have to find a way to consistently manifest points moving forward. Of the four teams that debuted Tuesday night, Michigan State was clearly the furthest behind the early-season 8 ball, despite returning a decent chunk of last year’s team. Establishing an offensive pecking order should be an early imperative for Tom Izzo, who did get fairly positive showings from freshman Max Christie (a legit NBA prospect) and sophomore A.J. Hoggard over the course of what became a difficult game for Michigan State. The Spartans shot 46% from the field, which wasn’t awful, but made just 9 of 16 free throws and turned the ball over 16 times to Kansas’s nine.
The Spartans are far from the first team ever to open a season with this problem, but there’s simply not a well-defined sensibility here yet in terms of who’s going to score and where their points are going to come from. There may be quite a bit riding on Christie and his freshman learning curve, and he carried himself well in his college debut despite not shooting particularly well. He looked comfortable getting to his jumper, but also a tad over-reliant on it, which isn’t always the best recipe for efficiency, particularly as an 18-year-old. But if Christie rises to the opportunity as a reliable scorer, Michigan State’s ceiling as a team changes in a positive way. I’d also point to Hoggard as a clear key for the Spartans moving forward: He was their only player with a consistent sense of urgency, was extremely vocal all game and moved the ball well. Although he’s not an exceptionally dynamic scorer, his leadership and offensive know-how are going to be important, and he should theoretically have a major role all season.
Junior forward Julius Marble II was pretty effective scoring in the paint and gives the Spartans a viable body up front. He should theoretically be ticketed for more minutes than last season. It was a quiet night for Gabe Brown, and Michigan State would probably love to get more from Marcus Bingham and Malik Hall, who have underachieved. Joey Hauser doesn’t offer a ton beyond the occasional open three. Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker got the start but took just three shots, and ceded lead guard minutes to Hoggard. Finding some type of offensive balance is going to be crucial to compete in the Big Ten, and there’s just not a lot of clarity yet as to what that will look like. The Spartans will have to be intentional in ironing out some of these issues in nonconference play, but at a glance, this felt more like a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team than a contender.
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