Goodman: 10 Things I Learned at the Champions Classic

On a night in which Mike Krzyzewski likely coached for the final time at Madison Square Garden, it was Duke’s freshman duo of Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels that took center stage. I go into what I found out about both of those guys in the 10 Things I Learned on Tuesday night at MSG:

1) I’ve learned over the years not to overreact after the first night of the season, especially this season. Some freshmen thrive in the moment, and others just either aren’t ready for it or press too hard in their college debuts in front of a packed house in a historic building with NBA players watching from the sidelines. I’ve seen Quentin Grimes go for 21 points and hit 6-of-10 3’s in 2018 at Bankers Life Arena, only to make 32 percent of his shots from deep the rest of the season and average 8.4 points per game before transferring. I’ve seen a Kansas team that got blasted by 32 points against Kentucky in 2014 still manage to win 27 games and claim the Big 12 title. “I don’t think this game means a ton,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.

2) Coach K might have a chance this season to go out in style. I just wasn’t sure that he had enough around stud freshman Paolo Banchero, but now that I’ve seen the “other” frosh, Trevor Keels, I’ve changed my tune. I had NO idea that Keels could be this dominant and physically imposing. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder is a big, strong guard who just had his way with Kentucky’s backcourt, finishing with 25 points in 33 minutes in his college debut. If Banchero truly has a running mate like Keels, and Duke has enough other pieces around them with big man Mark Williams and wing Wendell Moore, I’m not ruling out K cutting down the nets in New Orleans as the final act to his swan song.

3) Paolo Banchero isn’t as good as advertised. He’s even better. Not that I ever worried about this, since I’ve seen him play multiple times in person. But he’s just so smooth for someone his size. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound Banchero finished with 22 points and seven rebounds, and he actually did it quietly. Banchero can score with his strength and power (he was 8-of-9 from the line), but he’s also able to make shots from 18 feet, and showed a pretty baseline turnaround midway through the second half. Add in that he’s able to defend multiple positions and you’ve got a guy who will be a dominant force and the go-to guy for the Blue Devils. It won’t shock me at all if Banchero wins the National Player of the Year.

4) Kansas has no shortage of quality college basketball players, but Bill Self has come out and said that the high-end talent in the program isn’t what KU fans are used to, primarily due to the ongoing NCAA investigation. But Ochai Agbaji played like a star in the win over Michigan State, and it wasn’t just the fact that he scored 29 points. It was how he scored his points. He’s been a fairly one-dimensional scorer, a perimeter shooter, throughout his career — but only nine of his 29 points came from deep. He’s added the ability and the confidence to put the ball on the floor, and Self said that he drew a career-high seven fouls in the game. Self has begged for Agbaji to become more of an assassin, and now we’ll see if Agbaji can build on this and establish himself as an alpha dog for the Jayhawks. Agbaji was “really close” to keeping his name in the NBA Draft this past offseason, but Self said that the process was actually the best thing for him since the NBA feedback is often more impactful than anything he can say. “I made the right decision,” Agbaji said. “I know I did.”

5) Jayhawks point guard Remy Martin didn’t take a single shot in the first half, but then scored 15 in the second half. Martin is still adjusting to playing without the ball as much as he did while he was at Arizona State. “I don’t think he’s even remotely comfortable playing the way we want to play, and I don’t think he can see yet playing the way we want him to play,” Self said after the game. Martin also gets a bad rap by some as a “losing” or “selfish” player after last season’s 11-14 season in Tempe. For his first three seasons, the Sun Devils were 63-34 with a pair of NCAA tournament appearances. And that’s an ASU program that had been to the tourney just three times in the previous 22 years.

6) Don’t judge TyTy Washington yet. The Kentucky freshman is ultra-talented, but he looked lost on the court for much of the night. Again, it’s a lot to handle for a kid who was committed to Creighton just seven months ago. Washington is a talented and well-rounded combo guard who was 3-of-14 from the field and finished with nine points. He’ll get a chance to get his swagger back over the next few weeks with a slate that has seven consecutive games at Rupp Arena against Robert Morris, Mount St. Mary’s, Ohio, Albany, North Florida, Central Michigan and Southern. For Kentucky to be a team that contends for the SEC title, Washington will have to grow into a guy who winds up being the team’s top player.

7) One significant concern with Kentucky is frontline depth and a rebounding presence not named Oscar Tshiebwe — who finished with 17 points and 19 rebounds in the loss. Freshman Daimion Collins is 6-9, 200 pounds and while he has plenty of potential, he can’t handle a physical frontline like Duke’s and played just two minutes. Calipari can run him out there against some of the upcoming low and mid-major teams, but without Tshiebwe on the court, Kentucky doesn’t have another physical presence. It means that Tshiebwe might be the most important player on the roster, and will need to stay healthy and out of foul trouble.

8) Michigan State just doesn’t have a star. Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker (2 points, 3 assists, 3 turnovers) is better than he looked against Kansas, and he’ll be a guy who can lead the Spartans in both scoring and assists on certain nights, but he’s a nice piece in the Big Ten. Freshman Max Christie is likely the lone legit NBA prospect, and he doesn’t appear to have the alpha dog mentality. The frontcourt guys are solid — Marcus Bingham, Joey Hauser, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Julius Marble. But they need someone to make their lives easier, to set them up like Cassius Winston did a few years ago in East Lansing. I’m just not sold this will be anything more than a 8-9 seed in the NCAA tournament. … if that.

9) Bobby Pettiford as the “Next Guy.” Self got all three of his freshmen — Pettiford, skilled forward Zach Clemence and athletic forward KJ Adams — minutes against Michigan State. With Dajuan Harris and Remy Martin in the fold, it’ll be interesting to see how many minutes Pettiford will get this year. He played 11 minutes off the bench, showed his ability to get to the basket and also did a nice job making solid decisions, especially for it being the first game of his career. Self has told me on more than one occasion that he thinks Pettiford can be the “Next Great One” in the line of KU point guards.

10) Man, did we miss the college atmospheres. I’ve been to tons of pro sporting events across all the leagues, but college sports is just different. Last year was brutal for the players since they didn’t get to enjoy the true college basketball experience, but it was great to see a packed Madison Square Garden for the Duke-Kentucky game. It honestly felt like normalcy returned to the sport, with NBA players courtside, Bruce Springsteen in the crowd and in-person news conferences instead of zooms. 

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