Four of men’s college basketball’s biggest brands returned under one roof Tuesday night for one of the sport’s signature early-season events. Here are four takeaways from the Champions Classic doubleheader:
1. Kentucky ranked its no. 17 would be much better than the preseason ranking
One of Kentucky’s three ballyhooed freshmen missed 11 of the 12 shots he attempted. Another shot was 0-for-6 and more turnovers than points. He is the third of three 7-footers for the Wildcats to leave due to injury or eligibility concerns.
That sounds like a recipe for a 20-point Kentucky loss, but what actually happened was more encouraging than that.
In the first big test of the most stressful season of John Calipari’s coaching career, the Kentucky Wildcats led top-ranked Kansas deep in the second half before their youth and inexperience caught up to them. Tajuan Harris and Hunter Dickinson sparked an 11-1 surge in the game’s final four minutes, allowing the Jayhawks to escape with an 89-84 win.
Four-star freshmen Rob Dillingham and Reed Shepard will join T.J. With Wagner and Justin Edwards playing out, Kentucky was in a position to win. The speedy, streak-shooting Dillingham had 16 of his 18 points in the first half, including back-to-back Brazen 3-pointers that put the Wildcats ahead. Shepard, the son of former Kentucky star Jeff Shepard, added 13 points, impacting the game with his quick hands, his basketball IQ and his outside shooting.
Kentucky led by seven at halftime and scored 14 early in the second half and 6 with four minutes to go. Had Calipari not pulled away from Dillingham and Shepard for key stretches of the second half, the Wildcats might have come away with more than a moral victory. Nor did Dillingham, Shepard and Antonio Reaves force a series of 3-pointers in the final minutes.
Regardless, Kentucky’s strong performance in adverse situations is a step toward easing the pressure on Calipari. The Hall of Fame coach needs a strong season to calm concerns throughout Big Blue Nation that he isn’t the right man for college basketball’s highest job.
Three years ago, Kentucky stumbled through its worst season in nearly a century. Two years ago, the Wildcats suffered a spectacular loss in the NCAA Tournament against lightly regarded St. Peter’s. Last year, Calipari’s program fell out of the top 25 in late December and managed just one postseason win.
A recurring criticism of Calipari over the past few years has been that his teams play a primitive style of basketball that slows down, clogs the lane with two big men and doesn’t have enough shooters on the floor. If the first three games are any indication, that criticism doesn’t apply to this year’s team.
Without Aaron Bradshaw and fellow 7-footers Zvonimir Ivicic and Ukona Onyenzo, Kentucky played at breakneck speed against Kansas, turning missed shots and turnovers into conversion opportunities. The Wildcats hit 38 3-pointers, more than double their average last season.
Kentucky looked capable of making its first Final Four run since 2015, but the way the Wildcats did could create new headaches for their coach.
How will Calipari handle it if his backup backcourt is more effective than his more popular starters? Could Dillingham or Shepard get bigger roles at the expense of Edwards or especially Wagner?
It’s a good problem for Calipari, but one that requires a delicate touch.
2. Kansas’ opponents can no longer leave Tajuan Harris open
In the most crucial moment of Tuesday night’s game, with his team down six in the final minutes, Kansas point guard Dajuan Harris poked fun at Kentucky for not honoring his jump shot.
First, Edwards sank a wide-open left wing 3-pointer after biting his pass fake and releasing him. After Dillingham went under a Hunter Dickinson ball screen, he buried another unguarded 3 on his team’s next possession.
Those shots didn’t breathe new life into Kansas when it looked like Kentucky had lost control of the game. They sent a message to future Kansas opponents that Harris is more than a pass-first point guard and defensive stopper this season.
Harris finished with 23 points and shot 5 of 6 from behind the arc on Tuesday night. If that shooting proves consistent, it could be a huge boost for a Kansas team that needs perimeter shooting threats around Dickinson and do-it-all forward Kevin McCuller.
3. Caleb Foster will soon break into Duke’s starting five (and 2024 NBA draft)
Duke’s 74-65 win over Michigan State will be remembered in Durham as the Caleb Foster game. The rookie combo guard produced a breakout performance off the bench to help the preseason No. 2 Blue Devils avoid their second straight loss.
Not only did Foster score 16 of his team-high 18 points in the second half to help Duke hold off a streak of Michigan State rallies. Foster went 4-for-5 from behind the arc to correct the floor-spacing issues that plagued the Blue Devils in their home loss to Arizona last Friday.
When Michigan State doubled Kyle Filipowski in the low post late in the second half, the Spartans gambled by freeing up Foster in the right corner. He made them pay, burying a catch-and-shoot 3 with just over three minutes left to extend Duke’s lead to nine.
The next possession, a Duke Tyrus Proctor-Filipowski top-of-the-key pick-and-roll ran with a similar result. As Proctor turned the direction, Michigan State’s AJ Hogarth fumbled Foster for an assist. Foster responded with another catch-and-shoot corner 3 that extended Duke’s lead to 12.
It was a bit of a surprise that Foster was the only Duke freshman to score Tuesday night. The 6-foot-5 guard was one of the biggest snubs when the 2023 McDonald’s All-American rosters were released. He went 13 scoreless minutes against Arizona when the Wildcats helped the paint a lot and dared Duke to hit outside shots.
If Foster continues to provide isolation and catch-and-shoot scoring, it won’t be long before he claims fellow freshman Jared McCain’s spot in Duke’s starting five. And it won’t be long before he starts showing up in 2024 mock drafts as a possibility.
4. Tyson Walker needs more scoring help to reach Michigan State’s potential
Duke head coach John Schaer’s defensive game plan against Michigan State wasn’t hard to figure out: He wasn’t going to let Tyson Walker hit him.
First, the long-armed, quick-footed Tyres Proctor in Walker hopes to keep Michigan State’s spark plug out of the lane. Then, when Walker used screens to free himself from Proctor and create mismatches, Duke responded by blowing up those ball screens and pushing the ball out of Walker’s hands.
Walker had 22 more points, 18 of which came in the second half as Michigan State started a spirited rally from a double-digit halftime deficit. Yet those baskets rarely came easy and anything else Michigan State attempted was more difficult.
A Michigan State team that entered Tuesday night 2-for-31 from behind the arc missed all but two of its 13 first-half attempts and shot just 31.6% from the field. The Spartans also did nothing from the center position, where Maddy Sissoko and Carson Cooper struggled to get out of the post or finish around the rim.
They didn’t score much in transition. They shot 18 fewer free throws than Duke.
Michigan State bounced back from early losses to James Madison and Duke, its preseason No. To survive the 4 seed, the Spartans will need to lighten Walker’s load on the offensive end of the floor. Malik Hall stepped up with 18 points on Tuesday. Hoggard looks like a functional point guard. Jaden Akins doesn’t film this bad all the time. And Michigan State’s promising freshman class can produce more as it earns the trust of head coach Tom Izzo.
So don’t get dirty on the Spartans after three disappointing games. A team that returned four starters and added a top-five freshman class will need more patience than expected.