Back to School: Champions Classic Review

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(Photo from espnevents http://espnevents.com/champions-classic/)

The college basketball season officially tipped off last Friday night.  Unofficially, it began with the 24-hour hoops marathon on ESPN, ending last night with the Champions Classic consisting of two great matchups, featuring many outstanding players and possibly the four best teams in the country.  Let’s do a quick recap (because by now you know who won), but more importantly what we learned from last night and where these teams are headed.

KENTUCKY (1) vs. MICHIGAN STATE (2)

Despite the rankings, the experienced Spartans came into the game seemingly favored over the uber-talented, yet young Wildcat team.  Much of the game went as one might expect with Michigan State jumping out to an early lead before the Kentucky freshmen would settle in and crawl back to create a close finish, only to fall short 74-78.

Kentucky did a nice job staying in the game, with much thanks to Julius Randle’s dominant 2nd half and consistent scoring from James Young.  However, miscues like the turnover of Andrew Harrison that led to an easy Gary Harris lay-up to put the Spartans up 5 with 4:20 remaining, were all too common for the Wildcats.

I came away from the game seeing obvious strengths from the ‘Cats.  Kentucky is extremely athletic and lengthy at all positions.  The backcourt consists of James Young, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, each who are listed at 6-6.  They start a 7-footer in Cauley-Stein and bring another one off the bench in Dakari Johnson.  Add in Randle who is 6-9 and there is not a team in the country that can match that size.  This will show on offense and protecting the rim, but even more glaringly in the rebounding column.  Tom Izzo teams are not used to being outrebounded by double digits like they were last night (44-32).  Frequent Kentucky blowouts this year will be the result of that advantage.

Flaws in Kentucky’s game stood out as well.  First, the transition defense was nonexistent.  Michigan State scored 25 points in transition by taking advantage of turnovers and beating the ‘Cats down the floor after made field goals.  Second, Kentucky shot just 55% (20-36) from the free-throw line.  Missing out on 16 points from the line in a big game will often come back to bite you.  These blemishes along with committing 17 turnovers against a solid defensive team are common in a young team and will likely be ironed out by season’s end, if not much sooner.

The one shortcoming John Calipari should be most concerned about going forward is the outside shooting.  Kentucky shot just 4-20 (20%) from deep, with James Young converting 3 of those on 11 attempts.  Better games are to come for the Harrison twins as they were harassed by underrated defenders in Gary Harris and Keith Appling all night.  But equally as concerning as their 5 assists to go with their 6 turnovers, was their inability to provide an outside threat.  Until Kentucky can prove they can consistently shoot from deep, teams will take their chances with them outside and pack it in to help on Randle and add rebounders down low.  This game plan would look awfully similar to ‘Cat fans who saw defenses clamp down on DeMarcus Cousins and cut off the lane for John Wall, during the 2009-10 season in which Kentucky fell to West Virginia in the Elite 8, shooting 4-32 from 3-point range in the loss.

Michigan State provides a more straight-forward analysis, as you know what you are going to get with them.  I see Adreian Payne and a now healthy Gary Harris consistently leading the way.  The key is Keith Appling, who last night provided a stat line of 22 points (8-14, 2-4), 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals, and just 3 turnovers.  If he can come close to matching this offensive production in combination with his elite on-ball defense, Appling may go from the biggest X-factor on the team to its MVP.

The biggest takeaway for the Spartans was their ability to run.  Tom Izzo loves to get out in transition and this year’s team looks more than capable.  Appling, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine are all able to push the ball, looking for Harris and Branden Dawson on the wings, or Payne trailing the play Draymond Green-like, for an open 3-point look.

Adjusting to the new enforcement of the hand check rule, players seem not quite sure what to do with their hands.

DUKE (4) vs. KANSAS (5)

As opposed to the first game’s billing of old vs. new, this one matched the top two incoming freshmen (although Kentucky’s Julius Randle certainly belongs in the conversation).  And like the first game, this one lived up to its billing.

Kansas and their star freshman Andrew Wiggins came out on top 94-83, with Wiggins scoring 22 points and bringing in 8 rebounds, despite foul trouble that had him sitting on the bench much of the first half.  Sophomore Perry Ellis led the way for the Jayhawks with 24 points and 9 boards.

When Duke’s freshman Jabari Parker wasn’t carrying the team, Duke looked to struggle against the Jayhawks.  Parker was impressive, especially considering the added pressure of playing in his hometown of Chicago, scoring 27 points (9-18, 4-7) and pulling down 9 rebounds before fouling out with 1:17 to play.

In the freshmen comparison, Parker stands out to me as the more complete player as Wiggins may be the more elite scorer.   Wiggins may put up more points and grab his share of rebounds because of his length, while Parker stuffs stat sheets in all categories.

As a team, Duke needs help up front.  Sophomore Amile Jefferson scored 17 points on just 9 shot attempts and highly heralded Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood added 11.  However, the two forwards combined for the only 5 rebounds by Duke bigs not named Parker, in a game in which the Jayhawks outrebounded the Blue Devils 39-24.

In all, it was a great showcase for college basketball as an entertaining potential Final Four preview.  More imperative for these coaches, big games like these give you a better idea what areas need improvement.  And with national title aspirations for all four, improving game to game is most important.

(Stats from Espn.com)

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