While many programs started their seasons yesterday against ranked teams or conference foes, no games were bigger than the Champion’s Classic. The four best teams in the country battled in New York at Madison Square Garden giving tremendous drama on opening night. Each of these teams have the potential to pull their seasons together, regardless of the outcomes last night, but how would each team be re-ranked based on their performances?
1. Kentucky Wildcats – Coach Calipari’s pregame interview could be summed into a shoulder shrug when asked what to expect from his team against Michigan State. His answer should’ve been more bold and forthcoming. Despite the Wildcats overall lack of experience, they looked like the most controlled and lethal team in the building. Freshman point guard Tyrese Maxey poured in 26 points off the bench to lead all scorers and was the key difference maker down the stretch. He played with an extreme amount of poise and took care of the basketball in likely one of the year’s biggest regular-season games.
Offensively, Kentucky has a three-headed monster in the backcourt between Maxey and Sophomores Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. The trio of guards played on the floor at the same time during numerous points in the game and had a decisive speed advantage against the Spartans bigger backcourt. Highly touted Freshman forwards Keion Brooks and Khalil Whitney only combined for 4 points furthering the potential for this team to become more deadly. Defensively, the Wildcats did an excellent job of forcing the ball out of Cassius Winston’s hands and closing on perimeter shots. Michigan State was limited to 5-26 (19.2%) from 3 and minimized all secondary threats on the floor. Kentucky controlled the preseason #1 for much of this game.
2. Michigan State Spartans – If Tom Izzo’s team had played anybody else on the night, they would have likely won. However, the Kentucky team they faced pulled away to 10-point leads on numerous occasions and showed some weaknesses in the Spartan armor. Outside of Cassius Winston, their wasn’t much offensive success from any other player on the roster. Early foul trouble by Aaron Henry forced an adjustment to the team’s rotation, but still nobody was able to step up to the challenge. Despite Henry’s early issues, he finished as the team’s second-highest scorer on the night. However, no one was able to eclipse the 10-point mark.
Tough and defensive-minded, the Spartans biggest concern moving forward is finding offensive consistency outside of Winston. A different bounce here and there on a Winston or Gabe Brown 3-pointer and we could be talking about the resiliency of this team rather than how Michigan State can recover.
3. Duke Blue Devils – The uncertainty of how the Blue Devils freshman class would play against a much more experienced team has been erased, after their victory of Kansas. The trio of Vernon Carey Jr., Matthew Hurt and Cassius Stanley accounted for roughly half of the team’s points and led several runs in the second half. Additionally, Tre Jones lived up to the challenge of taking the reigns of this team and created quality scoring chances for himself. Offensively there is room for improvement, as Duke did not have an exceptional shooting night from the perimeter and in general.
However, Duke’s team defense was exceptional and was all the difference in this game. Tallying 11 steals and 3 blocks, the Blue Devils kept the Jayhawks off-balance and on the ropes for most of the game. Clogging passing lanes, increasing pressure on and off the ball, the team produced 14 extra scoring chances in the game. The defensive effort will need to be even better next game though, because Kansas still managed 46.0% from the field and 44.4% from 3. Without some self-inflicted wounds by the Jayhawks, Duke may have more questions than answers.
4. Kansas Jayhawks – This program shouldn’t necessarily be in this spot after losing by only 2 to Duke, but there is no other place to put them when they commit 28 turnovers on the night. In an abysmal performance, against top competition, the Jayhawks stock has certainly taken a hit. The team did not look comfortable, except for a short comeback at the beginning of the second half. There was a lack of communication across the board in this game and it caused the team to implode.
Offensively, the team shot the ball well and controlled the glass. There were positive signs of life from multiple freshman, as well as Udoka Azubuike and Silvio de Sousa in their return to action. However, turnovers killed any positive momentum and kept the the lead out of reach. Additionally, the team does not seem to have a viable backup point guard option once Devon Dotson leaves the floor. Marcus Garrett was successful offensively, but could not control his dribble enough to run the offense. Bill Self has a lot to fix with this team, but luckily these issues should improve once the rust is knocked off.