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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.