Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State basketball showed who they really are at Champions Classic

CHICAGO — It was 10 years ago this week when I was credentialed to cover the Champions Classic at the United Center for the first time. There was, to steal a phrase, palpable buzz in the building.

Duke vs. Kansas was a matchup of the top recruits in the country: Jabari Parker vs. Andrew Wiggins. Both players were electric, living up to every once of hype: Parker had 27 points on nine rebounds on 50 percent shooting, while Wiggins went for 22 points and eight rebounds on his own efficient scoring performance. Wiggins and Parker would go 1-2 in the 2014 NBA Draft, but little did anyone know at the time there was a future NBA MVP coming off the bench for Kansas. That would be Joel Embiid, a freshman center who backed up Tarik Black and Perry Ellis, and finished with two points, five assists, and seven rebounds in 20 minutes.

A year later, I was at Champions Classic in Indianapolis, watching perhaps the biggest beatdown I’ve ever seen on a basketball court: Kentucky 72, Kansas 40. It didn’t seem that close. Kentucky had four more offensive rebounds (15) than Kansas had made field goals (11). I went with “Kentucky will never lose” for my headline, and for the 38 games of the season, I was right. The next year saw a sleeker, faster Wildcats team led by Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis. They weren’t quite as good, eventually losing in the round of 32 at the NCAA tournament, but they sure were fun to watch.

I was thinking about those previous matchups as I arrived at the 2023 Champions Classic for a few different reasons. There just weren’t as many top prospects on the floor this time around, because these days those players cash big checks to play games no one really cares about with the G League Ignite. I was thinking about Coach K finally riding into the sunset, about how the transfer portal and NIL has changed the game, about how much older college basketball is now than it was a few years ago. I was thinking this event might not be as entertaining this time around.

I was wrong. The Champions Classic was again a delight, with two wonderful basketball games involving four top programs playing out. The results:

What a great night of hoops. Let’s dive into what we learned about each team in the event. Winners go first.

Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Duke lacks size, but they still have ways to beat you

This is one of the smallest Duke teams I can remember. Two years ago, Duke was riding Mark Williams’ 7’7 wingspan and 6’10, 250-pound freshman Paolo Banchero as their front line. Last season, Dereck Lively II brought his own massive reach next to Kyle Filipowski in the starting lineup. Filipowski is now Duke’s center, combo forward Mark Mitchell is installed at the four, and the rest of the lineup is filled out by guards.

This doesn’t look like a classic Duke team with future superstar NBA talent and tons of length up front. Instead, the Blue Devils have a veteran team that will be defined by how head coach Jon Scheyer develops his backcourt and handles his guard rotation.

Caleb Foster was the breakout star for Duke on Tuesday night, and no one could have seen that coming. In the Blue Devils’ close loss to Arizona five days earlier Foster only played 12 minutes and did not attempt a field goal. With Duke’s other guards struggling, Foster made the most of his opportunity and showed off his fantastic shot-making ability.

Jeremy Roach, Jared McCain, and Tyrese Proctor combined to shoot 6-of-22 on the night for 20 points. Foster popped off for 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting by himself, and Duke wouldn’t have won without him.

“What Caleb did tonight, he won us the game,” Scheyer said on Foster. “There are going to be ups and downs, but the program I know Duke to be is about how you respond.”

There’s a lot to like about Foster. The No. 23 overall recruit in the freshman class, Foster is a big guard, 6’5 with long arms, who can shoot the hell out of the ball with real shot versatility. He killed it on the EYBL summer circuit, but an up-and-down high school career left him just short of McDonald’s All-American status. He’s not an elite athlete by any stretch, but he looks solid in that department. Someone mentioned to me that he’s been in and out of the rotation because his defensive consistency wanes in practice. On this night, though, his ability to knock down shots off the ball with deep range, flow into pull-ups off the dribble, and run some offense as a secondary handler got me wondering why he can’t be a one-and-done first rounder. The fact that he turns 20 years old in July won’t help his draft stock, but there’s still a lot to like about his game.

Duke will need their guards to ball out this season, because the size just isn’t there. Ryan Young, a 6’10 big man in his fifth year as a former transfer from Northwestern, is playing big minutes off the bench, and he’s the sort of guy who would never get an opportunity with a prime Duke team. Filipowski is talented, no doubt, and could be a lottery pick, but his athletic limitations are a real factor, too. Mitchell’s ability to drive the ball to the basket and get foul calls was a saving grace against Michigan State. Can Duke count on that every game?

Proctor and McCain need to be better. Scheyer needs figure out Foster’s best role and make sure he’s positioned to succeed all year, because Duke needs his length and shooting on the perimeter. This Blue Devils team is good, not great, and that’s usually not good enough for Duke. Cooper Flagg is coming next year, and all will be right in Duke land. For now, this just doesn’t look like the Duke juggernaut of years past.

Champions Classic: Kentucky v Kansas

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Kansas is the veteran team every college basketball coach would love

I saw Kansas up close at the NCAA tournament last year when the Jayhawks were seeking to become the first back-to-back champion in college hoops since Billy Donovan, Joakim Noah, and Al Horford pulled it off at Florida. It didn’t go so well: Arkansas won a slugfest to pull off the upset, a shirtless Eric Musselman jumped on my table in press row looking as smooth as a dolphin, and Bill Self headed into the offseason to look for answers.

Self found a big answer in the middle by landing Hunter Dickinson in the transfer portal from Michigan. With Dajuan Harris, Kevin McCullar, and K.J. Adams all returning, the Jayhawks had a veteran team that was already incredibly battle-tested before the season began.

It’s wild how much experience Kansas has: Dickinson has started 92 college games, McCullar has started 85, Harris has started 80, and Adams made his 40th career start in the win over Kentucky. The days of Self tying his success to top recruits like Wiggins, Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander, and Josh Jackson are over, at least until Flory Bidunga comes in next year.

Kansas is simply going to be a huge pain the ass to play because they won’t beat themselves. The team fits together so well: Dickinson is a 7-foot monster in the middle, which he proved with an incredible 27-point, 21-rebound performance in the win as boos came down on every touch. McCullar is the ultimate glue guy as a strong 6’7 wing, and he finished with a triple-double (12-10-10) on what Self called an off-night for him after the game. Harris is a fantastic facilitator who plays tough on-ball defense. The hole in his skill set is the jump shot, but on this night he repeatedly punished Kentucky for going under ball screens, finishing with 23 points. Adams is just a freak athlete who can hammer home any lob.

The front court doesn’t offer a ton of spacing, and there’s also not much depth here. I also worry about Dickinson’s ability to hold up in high-level games on a spread floor, but seeing this Kentucky guard attack should help him long-term. I don’t know if Kansas will win the national championship, but their ability to combine a high floor and high ceiling sure will give them a good shot. I’m pro-portal in general, but seeing Self land Dickinson after three years at Michigan just feels a little unfair. No one will have fun playing these guys all year.

NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Kansas at Kentucky

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Kentucky is flawed but super fun once John Calipari figures out his lineups

Kentucky blew a 14-point second half lead to lose to Kansas. The Wildcats saw their two biggest prizes on the recruiting trail, projected top-10 draft picks D.J. Wagner and Justin Edwards, shoot a combined 1-for-18 from the floor. John Calipari’s team has zero size because of numerous injuries in the front court.

Despite all that, I found Kentucky to be the most interesting team at the Champions Classic by far.

Kentucky has a rabid fan base, and they probably don’t care at all about being interesting. They would rather win the world’s ugliest game than lose a highly entertaining one. I’m not sure if they have the pieces to go on a big run this year without a dependable true center available to play, but I know that I’ll be glued to Kentucky all season.

The Cats usually play struggle ball under Calipari. They own the offensive glass, lock down the paint, and score mostly by rebounding their own bricks. I have blasted Cal so many times before for failing to recruit shooters. I can’t make that assessment this year: Kentucky attempted 38 (!) three-pointers in the 40-minute game. Yes, that’s by far the most a Cal team has ever taken.

Volume three-point shooting is a battle of two factors: sustainability and variance. Shooting a lot of threes is a sustainable formula for success over the course of a long season. That’s just how the math works out, because three is worth more than two. Shooting a ton of threes is also a high-variance strategy on a night-to-night basis. When the shots don’t fall, you’re going to lose. It’s a winning strategy long-term, but in a sport with a single elimination postseason tournament, it could come back to bite you.

I ripped Calipari for his lineup choices during the game. Edwards and Wagner were simply terrible, and got such a long leash to continue playing awful basketball. Meanwhile, two less heralded freshmen, Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham, looked like the best players on the team. Edwards and Wagner combined for 54 minutes and five points on the night. Sheppard and Dillingham combined for 32 minutes and 31 points. I was ready to call out Calipari again, but he showed a lot of self-awareness in his post-game press conference and took accountability.

I’m tempted to say neither Edwards or Wagner will be projected as first round picks in my next 2024 NBA Draft, but perhaps I’m overreacting. We’ll see how the rest of the season plays out.

Meanwhile, Dillingham could be the real lottery pick. The man is electric: he splashed four threes in 90 seconds to send the Cats fanbase into a frenzy.

Sheppard is awesome, too. He’s such a high-IQ player. He’s also a great shooter and has tremendous hands defensively. Calipari needs to play Dillingham and Sheppard big minutes with Antonio Reaves, and hope the front court can hold up. It’s a tough decision to reduce the roles of prospects as highly-touted as Edwards and Wagner, but that’s why Cal gets paid the big bucks. At this level, it’s about performance, not reputation.

Kentucky might be cooked either way because of all the injuries in the front court, but I’d be remiss without giving a shout-out to Adou Thiero. Thiero is a 6’8 ball of energy who was everywhere against Kansas, gobbling up rebounds, slamming home multiple tip-dunks, and fighting for 50/50 balls. Not bad for a sophomore who barely played last season. After his 16-point, 13-rebound performance on 50 percent shooting from the field, Thiero deserves to be on the floor even if he’s not a threat to space the floor.

NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Duke at Michigan State

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Michigan State is old, boring, and pretty good

The Spartans started the year in the top-five of the polls. They lost their opener to James Madison in a day one stunner. After losing to Duke, Michigan State is now 1-2.

Disaster, right? Not really. Sparty will be fine, because this team has tons of experience and a lot of depth for Tom Izzo to develop.

Michigan State is old. Their starting lineup on Tuesday night included three 23-year-olds and a 22-year-old. The Spartans lost sharpshooter Joey Hauser over the offseason, but they returned so much talent from a Sweet 16 team, including leading scorer Tyson Walker, point guard A.J. Hoggard, tough two-way forward Malik Hall, and microwave scorer Jaden Akins.

Duke could have buried Michigan State when they went on an early run in the first half. It didn’t happen. The Spartans fought back, hung tough, and kept it a game until the end.

Walker’s tough shot-making ability is incredible. He finished with 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting by splashing multiple contested jumpers off the dribble. I worry about the lack of rim pressure from the guards, but Hoggard showed he could get the line a bit last season. The front court isn’t amazing, but it’s solid. Mady Sissoko looks like a classic Izzo big man, and Carson Cooper was killing it on the glass against Duke.

The upside here rests on a talented freshman class: wing Coen Carr, big man Xavier Booker, and point guard Jeremy Fears. Those three players combined for only 24 minutes in the loss to Duke. Izzo will need them for March.

Don’t freak out about Michigan State just yet. We’ve seen so many Izzo teams stumble out of the gates only to look great once it really counts. I wouldn’t bet against it happening again.

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