The Champions Classic Lesson

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 18th, 2015

Let’s get it out there: Kentucky and Michigan State collected MAJOR wins at the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. If Kansas and Duke turn out to be anything close to the top five teams that they are expected to be, these are the type of victories that can separate #1 seeds from #2 seeds come March. For teams closer to peril (not that either Kentucky or Michigan State is likely to fall into this category), wins like these can redirect NIT-bound seasons into the field of 68. Nevermind that it’s only November, or that all four of these teams will evolve dramatically over the course of the season: These results will still matter in March. But with that note out of the way, we can also admit something that all four coaches seemed to know last night: These games don’t matter all THAT much. There’s no realistic way that last night’s results will define any of these team’s seasons, and all four coaches, given a chance to improve over the next five months, trust their own ability to mold a team — no matter how dysfunctional they may appear in November.    

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night's Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night’s Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

But that isn’t to say that any of these four teams looked especially bad last night. Duke’s leading scorer, sophomore Grayson Allen, did look bad, but expectations should have been restrained in his first take in a starring role against elite competition. Allen and the other young Blue Devils — Brandon Ingram (1-of-6 from the field, four turnovers, four fouls), Derryck Thornton (3-of-7 FG, four turnovers) and Luke Kennard (0-of-5 FG) — are all good bets to steadily improve in the months to come. Kansas was the other team that left the United Center a loser last night, but Bill Self’s team displayed no signs of panic in the aftermath of Michigan State’s victory. Jayhawks junior Wayne Selden admitted that early season struggles had worried him in years past, but he said the more experienced composition of his current team quelled any such concerns this time around. Kansas handed away a game they held complete control of for 33 minutes — Bill Self admitted as much afterward — and the ball screen defense (or lack thereof) that enabled Denzel Valentine (29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) to repeatedly break Kansas down will need significant revisions. However, the Jayhawks have the talent, experience and coaching to cure their November ills, not to mention plenty of time in which to do so.

When the basketball was over, all four coaches spoke like men who knew last night’s results meant little in the bigger picture. When a question to Mike Kryzewski began “do you subscribe to the cliche…”, Coach K interrupted his interrogator with a smile and a quip: “Oh boy, I am subscribing to something and using cliches, this should be good!” He later asked a reporter for a grade on his answer to her question, and quickly accepted her A+, just before she tried to downgrade the response to an A-. The winning coaches, John Calipari and Tom Izzo, both enjoyed their share of laughs with the media postgame as well. Calipari enjoyed fixating on the collision between Alex Poythress’ tooth and the rim, while Izzo shared a vivid description of freshman Matt McQuaid’s eyes on the bench — “looked like he saw a deer in the U.P. (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula)” — before the freshman knocked down two huge three-point field goals in the closing minutes. Even Self, who’s been known to hold a grumpy presser or two, let loose with a couple jokes. Across the board, the response was clear: For better or worse, last night did little to change the overall trajectory of each team’s season.

For Michigan State, Kentucky and college basketball fans, the Champions Classic was all kinds of fun. The Spartans and Wildcats leave Chicago with a healthy dose of momentum, while fans had the opportunity to see Valentine’s individual masterpiece (there might not be a better one this season) and catch a first glance at Tyler Ulis (18 points, six assists, no turnovers) as starter and a dangerous new crop of Wildcats’ freshmen. The basketball wasn’t always perfect, but the 80 minutes of hoops by no means fell short of the pre-event buzz. Four elite programs produced two quality college basketball games — about all you can ask for in November. But if you are looking to last night for bigger implications for any of these teams, just ask Cal, K, Self or Izzo: They aren’t there.    

BHayes (244 Posts)

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