If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, and was reinforced a year ago on college basketball’s opening night, it’s not to make huge determinations and snap judgments after a single game.
We all do it, but after a few hours sleep, I feel better now and am not going to overreact.
Let’s not forget that one year ago, on Nov. 6, 2018 at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis, Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett combined for 61 points and Duke absolutely throttled Kentucky by 34 points.
The lopsided victory was surprising, but equally shocking for those who had watched the likes of that Duke freshman class — Zion, R.J., Cam Reddish and Tre Jones — over the years on the AAU circuit was the 8-of-17 performance from the quartet beyond the 3-point line. Duke, which wound up ranking 328th out of 351 teams in 3-point field goal percentage, wound up making 12-of-26 from long range against UK.
And Duke, which was handed the national championship by many so-called experts that night, barely got past UCF and Virginia Tech in the NCAA tourney before bowing out to Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
It wasn’t the only career performance in Indy that night, either. Kansas freshman Quentin Grimes, another guy regarded as an average perimeter shooter in his high school/AAU days, exploded for 21 points and sank 6-of-10 trifectas in the Jayhawks’ win over Michigan State.
Grimes didn’t hit 20 points the rest of the season, wound up shooting 32 percent from 3 the remainder of the year and is now playing for Kelvin Sampson at Houston.
I’m not saying to discount what Tyrese Maxey did on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, or not to worry about Kansas and/or Michigan State after their struggles. We can certainly learn things on the opening night, such as Zion’s motor running high, but we also need to keep it in perspective: There are still 135 days until the NCAA tournament starts.
With that, we take a look at What I Think I Learned at the Champions Classic.
-While Kentucky and Duke both came out on top over Michigan State and Kansas, it was still apparent that none of these four teams look dominant and overpowering. “These four teams aren’t above everyone else,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told me before walking out of Madison Square Garden. They each have multiple flaws. In fact, I’m wondering whether there is a better team in the country that was playing somewhere else on Tuesday night. I’m not quite sure who it is, but none of the four looked the part of a group that was going to dominate college hoops this season. What does it mean? No one is likely going to dominate college basketball this year. It means this college hoops campaign should be entertaining and full of unpredictability, with no shortage of teams rotating through the No. 1 overall spot.
-I ran into one NBA general manager while heading up to the concession stands at halftime of the Kentucky-Michigan State game. We talked about how the stock for NBA first-round picks — lottery picks in particular — skyrocketed a year ago while watching Zion, R.J. and even Cam Reddish (22 points, 3-of-8 from 3). This year was just the opposite. “NBA guys will come out of this night looking to get rid of their picks,” he said. “Just not a lot of big-time guys here, and these are the top four teams in the country. I know it’s early, but it wasn’t like last year that’s for sure.”
-I’d like a do-over after ranking Kansas No. 1 in the preseason. Bill Self is a hell of a coach, but I won’t lie: I’m just not sure all the pieces fit like I thought they would after seeing it on the court instead of on paper.
-Tyrese Maxey showed he can be “The Guy” for Kentucky. There have been questions whether he was a point or a two-guard and whether he could shoot it well enough from the perimeter. John Calipari even said after the game that he hadn’t seen “this” Tyrese Maxey since high school. Well, the freshman answered the questions from his coach and everyone else with an electrifying performance — by far the most impressive of the night. He finished with 26 points and scored in a variety of ways: driving to the basket, shooting from long range and displaying a solid floor game. Now Maxey needs to prove he can do this on a consistent basis.
-Length, length, length: Kentucky may not be overwhelming up front, but what the ‘Cats do have is length with Nate Richards, E.J. Montgomery and even Nate Sestina. Then they rotate in some long wings Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks Jr. Tom Izzo admitted that the length bothered the Spartans, and in particular frustrated Cassius Winston.
-No one re-directs postgame questions like John Calipari. First I asked him about his team’s length and he went on to talk about his team’s toughness. Then I wanted to know the range of emotions after last year’s loss and this year’s win, and he responded by talking about how college basketball needs to start playing televised August exhibition games.
-Coach K is clearly trying to instill confidence in this group, whereas a year ago he was trying to temper the expectations — especially after the rout over Kentucky in the opener. Case in point: He was continuously praising the team’s defense for forcing 28 turnovers. Listen, Duke was definitely much better than they have been in the past on this end of the floor, but many of the KU miscues were of the unforced variety.
-The freshmen are who we thought they were. There’s no Zion or R.J. Barrett. It’s a nice group collectively, but none are elite. They all had their moments, except for maybe Wendell Moore. Matthew Hurt finished with 11 points and showed he’s the team’s top perimeter threat, Vernon Carey had 11 points and five boards and did a nice job against an even bigger big man, Udoka Azubuike, and Cassius Stanley displayed his athleticism and finished with 13 points. It’ll be interesting to see whether Moore, who was highly sought-after as a recruit, can find a role. He’s a jack-of-all-trades wing who played 12 minutes and was 1-of-6 from the field.
-Coach K will have to utilize his bench this year. Usually, he winds up shortening his rotation to seven or eight guys. This year with so little disparity, don’t be surprised to see him go nine deep. He wound up playing nine guys from Wendell Moore’s 12 minutes to Tre Jones’ 38 minutes. K will have to pick his spots when to get veterans Jack White, Alex O’Connell and Javin DeLaurier extended minutes as well. And Jordan Goldwire will find his way onto the court because of his defense — and K clearly wants that to be a focus for this team.
-Cassius Stanley could be a difference-maker for this Duke team because of his size and athleticism. He was a game-changer in the second half as he was able to get out on the break, and also make a critical 3-pointer. Stanley was said to be up and down through most of the preseason, but came on strong the last couple weeks to earn the starting spot. He’s just different than everyone else on the Duke roster this year.
The Jayhawks were terrible, committing 28 turnovers with six of them coming courtesy of starting point guard Devon Dotson (who only had one assist). KU can improve on taking care of the ball, but there are a few glaring holes that Bill Self may not be able to fill:
-Self traditionally had a four-man who can play at the high post and make quality decisions. He doesn’t have that now. He really has three true big men in Udoka Azubuike, Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack. De Sousa was supposed to be a difference maker, but he looks completely lost at times and logged just seven minutes. The best bet may be skilled freshman Jalen Wilson, but he’s a ways away and only played two minutes on Tuesday.
-Kansas just doesn’t have enough guys who can make plays off the dribble. When Marcus Garrett is your second option down the stretch, that’s just not ideal. There’s Dotson and Garrett and not much else that can put it on the floor and make a play. KU will add grad transfer Isaiah Moss, who sat out with a hamstring injury, but he’s far more of a spot-up shooter. He’ll help space the court for Dotson, but they are still working without a lot of guys who can get into the lane via penetration.
-Backup point guard. Self doesn’t have one. That means Dotson has to play 35-plus minutes every single game. The backup is Garrett, and he’s not really a guy who can run an offense or consistently make life easier for his teammates. Dotson might be as important of a guy as there is in the country because of this. If he gets hurt, or even gets into foul trouble, KU is as good as done.
-The Spartans desperately miss Josh Langford, and Tom Izzo told me after the game that he is preparing as if Langford does not return from his most recent foot injury. What Izzo doesn’t have is someone to take the pressure off Winston, and a consistent second option. Langford was a guy who Izzo could pencil in for 15 points basically every night. Winston was the only Spartans player in double-figures.
-Winston struggled against the size, length and athleticism of Kentucky, but he and the Spartans won’t see that in the Big Ten. The ‘Cats made certain that Winston saw two bodies off ball screens and guys that were difficult to both see over and also get by. He was 1-of-7 from deep and had four assists and three turnovers. It was a disappointing performance from a senior and someone may feel is the frontrunner to win National Player of the Year honors.
-Xavier Tillman has to stay out of foul trouble. He is as important to this team as anyone because he’s a guy who should be able to dominate in the post and give Winston some help. I love Aaron Henry, but he’s not a proven shooter yet and will have to get his points around the basket and in transition. Tillman picked up a couple of early fouls on offensive fouls, with his second coming with 8:12 left in the first half. Michigan State can ill-afford a tentative Tillman.