Tonight’s Lede. Hoops Marathon Ends With Basketball Royalty in Atlanta. The fifth iteration of ESPN’s College Hoops Marathon went from Spokane to Albuquerque to Honolulu to New Jersey to Indiana to Amherst to Ohio to NYC to Cincinnati to Atlanta, with 16 games of varying quality and competitiveness, but it finished at the Champions Classic with two hard-fought and generally well-played games befitting the assembled hoops royalty of Izzo, Krzyzewski, Calipari and Self. Last season’s inaugural event in Madison Square Garden featured Krzyzewski’s 903d all-time victory and the coming-out party of Calipari’s talented band of super-freshmen. This year’s set of games in Atlanta featured a Michigan State team finding itself after a surprising loss to a scrappy Connecticut team last week in Germany, while Duke was looking to shore up its perimeter defense to reclaim its usual spot among the nation’s elite as a national title contender. Tonight’s losing teams, Kentucky and Kansas, came away from the experience not feeling terrible, realizing that November games — while important to their resumes — are more a time for reflection and focused learning than worrying about finished products. Let’s jump into the day’s games…
Your Watercooler Moment. Calipari Calls Out Duke’s Flopping.
What else could it be? In one of the better preaching to the choir moments in recent college basketball history, John Calipari told ESPN’s Andy Katz at halftime of the Champions Classic nightcap in a half-joking/half-serious manner that Duke’s players were “flopping all over the place.” The Twitter-verse immediately seized the moment because if there’s anything that gets Duke haters riled up, it’s the tendency for Coach K’s defenders to find their backs on the floor with the ball headed the other way. For what it’s worth, Calipari said after the game that he was just joking. Nevertheless… the head coach may have made some new friends tonight.
This Other Thing… Both Kentucky and Duke Impressed. Duke walked out of Atlanta as the clear winner of the event, knocking off the #2 Wildcats and showing that some of the defensive deficiencies that caused so many problems for the Blue Devils last season may be solved. Seth Curry (23 pts) was outstanding in his twin roles as leader and scorer, and his game-finishing drive to fake Nerlens Noel off his feet and drop in a right-handed layup was a thing of beauty. Mason Plumlee, when not in foul trouble, showed that he is an elite big man (18/3 on 7-8 FG) and the rest of the Duke cast was at least serviceable on this night. Coach K was not going to let the Kentucky perimeter beat his team, and a 9-25 shooting night from Kyle Wiltjer, Archie Goodwin and Julius Mays ensured that Duke wouldn’t have to get into an 80- or 90-point game to win this one. As for the Wildcats, we anticipated that John Calipari would get a much better effort on the glass, and he did (27 each) while also allowing his talented big men, Alex Poythress and Noel, to pick their spots and follow the fluidity of the game. The duo combined for 36 points and 16 rebounds, and the mere sight of those two flying around the airspace above the rim should send shudders throughout the rest of college basketball wondering how good they’ll be when they figure out the plays. Brian Joyce was at the game and provided his takeaways here from watching it courtside, but from the perspective of talent (Kentucky) and cohesion (Duke), it wouldn’t surprise us to see both of these squads matching up again in that very building next April.