Since the day it was announced, the Champions Classic tournament has been one of the most hyped basketball days in recent memory, and justifiably so. When you have 4 of the top 5 teams in the country squaring off with a combined total of 13 potential first round picks, you are just expecting that to be an epic basketball night.
It definitely lived up to its hype and maybe even surpassed it, especially for it being November college basketball. When you hear “November college basketball’ you typically think top tier teams taking on University-State Community College and such. Last night’s bout card was: Michigan State v Kentucky and then Duke v Kansas. 4 of the greatest basketball traditioned schools in the land, and we got to see them early in the season. (Man are we spoiled!)
First Game: Michigan State Spartans 78 versus Kentucky Wildcats 74
This game was the kick-off game. It was the experienced Michigan State Spartans versus the “best recruiting class of all-time” inexperienced but talented Kentucky Wildcats. Adrien Payne, Garry Harris, Keith Appling, Tom Izzo. Julius Randle, James Young, Harrison twins, Willie Cauly-Stein, John Calipari. This game was loaded with talent, both from the players and the coaches.
The pregame story line went something like this: The Wildcats were number 1 in the land and had arguably the greatest recruiting class of all time. They were inexperienced and Cal felt like it was unfair to play against such an experienced team. Michigan State finally started a season fully healthy and was gunnin’ for another NCAA Final Four run.
The game itself didn’t disappoint. UK started off very slowly and the Spartans started cookin’. UK took awhile before their offense looked somewhat decent but as always, talent will awlays keep a game close. I don’t think the Spartans lead anymore than 12 or 15 points and the Wildcats were able to CLAW their way back into the game (see what I did there?). It took Julius Randle awhile to settle down and collect his composure, but the future top-pick showed us why he’ll be in the league next year. He tried playing some point forward at the beginning of the game and that was leading to careless passes and silly turnovers. So he tried his luck on the block and was getting double-teamed every time he touched the ball. Even though Julius has one of the most developed post games and post-footwork I have ever seen from a freshman, Michigan State was just swarming to him because there was very little off-ball action and UK couldn’t buy a bucket. James Young was basically the only Wildcat out there helping Julius out.
On the other hand, Adrien Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling were showing why MSU was ranked #2. Harris came out blazing his way, to the point where he was getting mentioned in the same breath as Ray Allen, Bradley Beal and Eric Gordon. I’m not saying Gary is bad, in fact he’s probably the best SG in college basketball, but those are 3 star-studded players. Keith Appling almost tallied up a very quiet triple-double (most of the attention was on Harris and Randle all game). Payne also had quite a game, netting 15 points and playing solid defense. The game really picked up in the second half when Julius Randle to go beast mode on the block. The Spartans weren’t really able to keep double-teaming him like before because they had to stay home on the shooters. UK, for the most part, did a much better job of spacing the floor in the second half as well. In the first half, they were very stagnant with their offense and didn’t move once they passed the ball to Randle on the block.
That wasn’t the case in the second half. Julius showed off his sweet touch and footwork going to work and dropping 23 of his 27 in the 2nd half. The offense ran through him and James Young did a much better job moving off-ball and slashing to the rim and spotting up. Michigan State, however, did end up being the more experienced team in the end. They were able to hold of the Wildcats’ run and won the game. This game really came down to one major stat: Free throws. MSU shot 76% on 13-17 shooting. UK? 55% on 20-36 shooting. BLECH. And I’m not trying to take away anything from MSU here, but it’s going to win games like that if they allow 18 offensive rebounds again. And for UK, they are going to need their twin guards to show up next game. They shot poorly, looked out of sync and the offense only netted 8 assists on 25 field goals. Granted, most of their offense came from Randle going Iso on the block, but if they were able to create more, they might not have been in that predicament.
Post Game Thoughts: The players impressed me. Randle showed off why he could be the #1 pick in next years draft. Garry Harris showed why he is the best shooting guard in this years class. James Young showed off why he was touted as the 2nd best player on UK’s roster entering the season. Payne showed us why we should still believe in him as a prospect. Appling showed us he has the leadership skills to take MSU to a Final Four. And remember, this is a baseline for what we compare these prospects too. They can only go up from here, especially with this being such an early season game. Even though people are going to talk about these games for the next couple weeks, remember that his is a measuring stick for their progress through the season. Not necessarily their stats, but just how they look within the offense and defense of their teams. Example: Ja Rulius (Thanks Danny Chau!) didn’t look particularly good on off-ball defense. He will need to become a much better team defender as the season continues. Compare what they do and not their stats to these games.
Second Game: Duke Blue Devils 83 versus Kansas Jayhawks 94
Probably a more anticipated game than the first, with 2 of the top prospects ever going head-to-head on prime time TV. Wiggins v. Parker; the Ali-Frazier of the college basketball top prospect world. But this game went so much further than just those two. In the Red corner, you had new-transfer Rodney Hood and FIBA U19 stud Rasheed Sulaimon and Coach K for Duke. And in the Blue corner, you had the second coming of Hakeem in Joel Embiid and slashing super-star Selden and Bill Self for Kansas. The much-anticipated high-level bout for these two teams went back n forth and went down to the wire.
The early story of the game was Kareem Abdul-Jabari Parker going inferno and showing off why HE was the “best prospect since LeBron” before his injury. We all knew that Jabari was a walking offensive firepower machine (maybe not all of us, but most of us that have been watching him for awhile knew.) Parker had 19 by halftime, shooting 60% and 4-5 from three point land. Wiggins finished the half with an unimpressive 6 points on 3-5 shooting and only played 9 minutes because of foul trouble (remember the 6 points thing.) Kansas was able to keep this game close while Wiggins was out with talents like Selden, Embiid, Perry Ellis and unlikely bench hero, Frank Mason, all playing terrific. As I said before the season started, Duke is going to be an offensive fire-power MACHINE but their downfall is their lack of height and interior D; and Kansas took advantage of that. When you allow Perry Ellis to score 24 points on 9-13 shooting, you know you need help. Jabari is a big dude, but he is still a forward. He had to guard Jamari Traylor, Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid basically all night (Amille Jefferson helped some, I guess.)
Ok, moving to the second half. Andrew Wiggins must have taken some of Mike’s secret stuff from Space Jam because he came out fired up. You could definitely tell Bill Self said something to him at half that motivated him. And that’s really all it takes for Wiggins to be dominant; some motivation. Bill Self said after the game that Wiggins requested to play defense on Jabari and from there on out, Jabari only scored 8 more points in the second half. Wiggins’ quick jumping ability makes it easy for him to stay down on pump-fakes and elevate on actual shot-attempts. He contested Jabari’s shots very well in the second half. Wiggins on the other hand offensively went off. He ended up with 22 on 9-15 shooting and a couple of clutch buckets down the stretch, including a very nice step back jumper. The next play? A steal from Ellis and an and-1 dunk from Wiggins (the foul was on Jabari that caused him to foul out.) That basically sealed the deal, and Kansas went onto win.
Post Game Thoughts: We were spoiled by this game. Both teams were un-sloppy with the ball (neither team had more than 10 turnovers), both shot over 50% and made a close game out of it. Wiggins and Jabari are great and nobody can deny that. Yes, both have flaws in their games, but think back to when you just turned 18 years old and let me know how perfect your NBA-ready game was. Jabari still needs to work on that defensive quickness that would allow him to guard wings in the pros; Wiggins needs to learn how to be initiate the offense and get a more fluid shot. But both impressed tonight and it was everything we could have hoped it would be. On top of those two, Wayne Selden looked so, so good. He even played point some, which surprised me. If he can do that consistently throughout the year, this Jayhawks team will be scary good come March, and it will only boost his draft grade. Joel Embiid still needs work as far as scoring goes. He looked much better than I originally thought he would. Has terrific court vision as a passer (you would too if you were 7’ and could see over everybody, right?) and kept his composure on double teams. Rodney Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon both had good games and so did Amille Jefferson.
Overall thoughts: These games are going to get broken down almost to a point where it is over-broke-down and to a point it just makes you sick. Mock drafts will be updated over the next couple days with BRAND NEW ANALYSIS, even though most of us already knew what these guys would look like. As I stated above, these games are a measuring tool for how these players progress throughout the season and to see initial flaws in their respective games. I will not breakdown players after every game. Actually, let’s make that an oath. Raise your right hand and repeat after me.. “I (insert name here) do solemnly swear to not over-analyze or constantly break players down. I promise not to call a prospect overrated just because I don’t like them and ESPECIALLY will not make rash statements.” There, you should feel better now, because I sure do. (Note* I’ll probably break that oath in the next hour. Deal with it, bros.) All in all, tonight was one of the best November basketball nights in recent memory, NBA or NCAA. It was entertaining to watch and fun to pair it with twitter (for the most part at least, some of y’all are mean when it comes to breaking down players’ games.) I am really looking forward to watching a lot of college basketball this season, and with all the talented prospects, you should too.
Thank you, Champions Classic, for making us love college basketball in November.