The Champions Classic lived up to its huge expectations last night when Kentucky and Michigan State battled down to the wire followed by the Freshman led Duke and Kansas teams battling onto the final minutes. With so much to talk about, we thought it only fair to provide 10 takeaways from the NCAA’s thrilling opening doubleheader.
College Basketball made its national debut with style last night, as the good people of ESPN put together a gem of an opening doubleheader heavy on hyped freshmen, who hoop heads have been anxiously waiting to see play. We’ve all probably been spending a borderline unhealthy amount of time staring at YouTube videos in anticipation, most notably for Andrew “Maple Jordan” Wiggins. But whether it was Kentucky’s polar opposite first and second halves, endemic of a young team, the duel between Jabari Parker and Wiggins, or a some extra juice in the Michigan State offense, last night revealed more than an opening night usually does, which is appropriate for such a brilliantly assembled event.
*** *** ***
1. Michigan State is Good On Both Sides of the Ball
It’s unusual for a Tom Izzo-coached team to be out rebounded by 12 and still win, but that happened because this years Spartan team likes to score the basketball in transition as much as grind it out on defense. That’s an important distinction from year’s past and adds another dimension to a team that looked every bit the part of a top team in the country. Despite giving up height to an NBA-sized Kentucky team, the Spartan defense held true to form and complimented the new emphasis on running in the open court. Tom Izzo teams are defined by March and this year’s team has the chops to add to his Hall of Fame resume.
2. Coach John Calipari Was Dead On
Prior to last night’s game, Coach Cal was in midseason form when it came to complaining about his inexperienced freshman. While this was looked at with a knowing smirk from those who’ve heard Calipari hit these themes over the years, during the first half last night he was absolutely right. A team full of NBA talent wasn’t used to playing together yet, nor were they ready to consistently play defense and box out. But they showed flashes of the potential greatness every commentator has prognosticated, particularly Julius Randle, who already looks like a man among boys. If this team is anywhere near their potential in February and March, even Calipari won’t have anything to complain about.
3. These New Defensive Rules Are Gonna Annoy Everyone
With the NCAA trying to limit what were some clunkers last season, a series of new rules and points of emphasis managed to annoy countless commentators and teams whose players rely on tough man-to-man defense and a grind-it-out style. Both Tennessee and Georgetown, who combined for an all-time ugly game around this time last year, have to adjust. Until teams like that evolve, either by playing more zone or simply reaching less on defense, expect a lot of complaining about perpetual free throw shooting competitions between teams.
4. Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins Just Introduced Themselves
From wire to wire, Parker looked the most consistently impressive of the big three freshman that were on display Tuesday night. Randle played well but had way too many turnovers. Wiggins struggled with foul trouble in the first half, but in the second showed flashes of what will make him so intriguing, including the killer three point play that fouled Parker out of the game. Wiggins had quickness around the rim and killer first step were evident all night long. Parker was fantastic in all phases of the game. His size and skill combination make him a joy to watch. At times, he put Duke right on his back, until he fouled out. The comparisons between Parker and Wiggins will continue all season long.
How did I know someone would send me this picture: pic.twitter.com/DAZvzfRHGz
— Jay Williams (@RealJayWilliams) November 13, 2013
5. This Season Is Gonna Be Fun
If this opening salvo was any indication, this NCAA season has more juice than the past several combined. Traditional powers welcoming superstar freshmen that can really play is always good for business. What separates this year from others is the “must see” nature of each of these young prodigies, and the fun projecting them towards the next level. So no matter which currently tanking NBA team gets a top three pick, they’ll be acquiring players with the talent to turn things around very quickly, which is part of the fun of NCAA hoops. But not as much fun as match ups like last night and it’s only November 14, with much more to come.
In the Champions Classic there were eight of the top 10 players in the 2013 ESPN 100. Thirteen players are on the preseason Wooden Award list and 17 of these athletes are in the top 50 of Chad Ford’s NBA prospect list. A large number of these players will likely be a first round selection in the 2014 Draft, as the United Center was filled with NBA scouts and coaches.
*** *** ***
6. Experience Trumps Talent
In the first game of the doubleheader, Michigan State looked like the experienced team picking on the hotshot group of Kentucky freshmen. MSU jumped out to a 10-0 lead before Kentucky freshman James Young was able to knock down a 3-pointer to end the run. The Spartans grabbed four steals in the opening minutes of the game, letting all the Wildcat freshmen know what it takes to be successful at this level.
Kentucky eventually fought back but Michigan State still managed to control the first half, hitting 58 percent of their shots from the field. The second half would prove to be a different story. Kentucky came out quick and battled back to eventually push down the lead to a few buckets, thanks to Julius Randle who finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds. He came up big in the second half, bullying talented defender Adreian Payne and the MSU defense for bucket after bucket.
The last seconds of the game ticked away with MSU holding a 76-74 lead. Kentucky just needed to make a stop and put themselves in a position to tie or take the lead. Instead they made the mistake that many young teams do. They ball-watched on a missed shot, giving up the offensive rebound, which allowed for a tip-in by Dawson to put MSU up by four with less than 4.4 seconds remaining. MSU went on to win the game 78-74.
Kentucky may have been the more talented team, but MSU was the more complete team. They were able to get the key rebound when it counted and turned the ball over 10 fewer times than UK did. Experience triumphed in the first game but the fact that Kentucky suffered a tough defeat early on only means that the most talented team in the nation will be getting even better.
7. Wiggins May Have to Take a Backseat to Randle and Parker
While phenom Andrew Wiggins may provide all the intangibles NBA scouts are looking for, he might be overshadowed by Jabari Parker and Julius Randle during this NCAA season. All three players came up with big performances last night, but Wiggins â€” although he was the only one to earn a win â€” was slightly outplayed by the other two freshman stars.
Wiggins: 22 points and 10 rebounds
Parker: 27 points, 9 rebounds and 3 steals
Randle: 27 points and 13 rebounds
Wiggins is definitely the more athletic player of the three but I think Parker and Randle will give opposing defenders more trouble this season. In the second half of the MSU-UK game, Randle â€” who was playing in only his third game of his college basketball career â€” was bullying the senior Payne and junior Branden Dawson in the paint. Parker and Wiggins faced off a few times in the Duke-Kansas game, but it looked like it was tougher for Wiggins to guard Parker than the other way around. Parker has 30 pounds on Wiggins, which gives the Duke star an advantage in the post, but he also has the athleticism to hang with Wiggins on the wing or driving to the basket.
I still believe that â€” even if Wiggins fails to have as successful of a season as his freshman peers â€” he will still go No. 1 in the 2014 Draft. This season will only reveal the tip of the iceberg of Wiggins’ talent. Once he steps foot on an NBA court, then he’ll show everyone what the hype is about. But for now, I think Jabari Parker, averaging 24.5 PPG and 7.5 RPG so far this season, and Julius Randle, averaging 24.0 PPG and 14.0 RPG, will be the top two players in the nation by season’s end.
8. Any Sport is More Interesting with “Stars”
After the NBA added an age limit, oftentimes stars in college basketball are freshmen, and the fact that this year holds the most talent from a freshmen class in a long time, proves that this season will bring plenty of excitement.
There is a reason why the John Calipari Kentucky teams have gathered so much attention over the years. It’s because they have so many individual stars. From players like John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Glichrist, UK under Calipari has rarely seen a shortage in star wattage. This year might feature his most star-laden team, yet. They currently have six McDonalds All-Americans on their roster and can fill their starting lineup with five players who are ranked in the top 10 of the 2013 ESPN 100.
Duke, Kansas and Kentucky aren’t the only teams being led by freshman. Arizona with Aaron Gordon and Florida with Kasey Hill and Chris Walker are also relying on youngsters to bring them NCAA glory. The young and up-and-coming talent grabs the viewers’ attention and gives them a storyline bigger than the game itself.
After last night’s epic battles everyone is anticipating what will happen the rest of the season. LeBron James even tweeted, “GM’s wish the draft was tomorrow.” These star freshman will have America watching.
9. Lots of Parity With Talent All Over the Map
One of the best ways to decide how talented the teams and players are for a particular college basketball season, is to evaluate the ensuing NBA draft. Anthony Bennett was the No. 1 overall pick last year. I’ll let that sink in for a bit in case any of you forgot, and it’s not hyperbole to say the 2013 NBA draft was the worst in years. It’s hard to imagine a star in-the-making outside of â€” possibly â€” Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo. The 2014 iteration promises to be much better.
Wiggins, Gordon, Randle, Parker and Marcus Smart are all expected to be game-changing franchise players for an NBA squad, but for now they are scattered among the top teams in the nation. This is great for college basketball.
There the young teams, like Kentucky, that are filled with the most talented freshmen and then there are teams like Michigan State and Louisville who are returning major pieces from a season ago. Watching the two games from last night go down to the last couple of minutes makes me wonder how many more down-to-the-wire games we’ll witness this season.
10. The Stars of Michigan State
Julius Randle is expected to lead Kentucky, Jabari Parker will lead Duke, Andrew Wiggins will try to lead Kansas â€” if Bill Self lets him, but who will lead Michigan State? The Spartans don’t have a “Diaper Dandy” to carry them through the season. They don’t have a star player that will go in the top five of the 2014 NBA Draft. They don’t necessarily have anyone that will leave GMs drooling. But they don’t really need any of that.
MSU has plenty of talent to go with their experience, which makes them the top team in country. However, if we learned anything from last night’s game, it’s that Gary Harris and Keith Appling will lead MSU this year. They stepped up big when the team needed them the most. MSU lost Payne for part of the game due to foul trouble, so they both stepped up their scoring. Junior Travis Trice didn’t get a lot of playing time because he was undersized defensively compared to the Kentucky guards. So Harris played 35 minutes and Appling put in 34.
Harris, who was named the Big 10 Freshman of the Year last season, started the game on fire, scoring 11 points early in the game after connecting on 4-of-5 from the floor. He finished the game with 20 points, shooting 50 percent from the field. Appling provided a complete game for MSU, scoring 22 points with eight assists, eight rebounds and four steals. Appling exemplified that his experience as a senior would overcome most of the talent gap with freshman powerhouses.
What did you think of last night’s Champions Classic?
Follow Gabe on Twitter at @gabe_bain.
Follow T.J. on Twitter at @TJ22Hatter.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.