CHICAGO — You know a game isn’t the most exciting when the biggest roar from the crowd occurs in the first half when Magic Johnson is shown on the video board. That was the story for Duke and Michigan State early Tuesday night. Kansas and Kentucky fans didn’t need the greatest point guard of all time to hype them up, they were “on” from the jump.
The Champions Classic annually features four of the biggest brands in college basketball, and while this year’s edition saw No. 9, Duke, for No. 17 Kentucky, 89-84, in the nightcap, the games illustrated the lows and highs that can occur when teenagers play basketball.
First, the Dukies and the Spartans.
At the 11:45 mark in the first half, the game was tied at 9. At the 7:41 mark, it was 12-12 as 14 total turnovers were committed before Duke took a 31-20 lead into the half. The teams shot a dismal 4-for-21 from deep. My halftime notes read as follows:
Bad shooting. Dead crowd. No flow. No runs.
And then the second half began and things began to feel like a Duke and Michigan State game should – a game that was going to be tight in the final 20 minutes and decided in the final possession.
Tyson Walker started cooking for the Spartans and Duke showed some toughness on the boards, knocking down some timely shots to keep Michigan State at bay. The Blue Devils surprisingly took the rebounding edge, 35-33, as the Spartans’ poor shooting is the reason they leave Chicago with a 1-2 record.
Michigan State finished the game 26-for-63 from the field and was 6-for-19 from deep. In the game, the Spartans made just 2 of the 31 three-pointers they attempted. As you can guess, that was all people wanted to talk about at the post-game press conference.
“Well, if I listen to you guys, I might as well call it a year,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “Level of concern, level of concern, level of concern. I mean, we lost the game, you know? The last game we lost, we had trouble shooting the ball, but that was also the game we were in a lot of foul trouble and Malik and AJ cramped the entire second half.
“It’s funny how everyone only picks out the negative things. I mean, I’m very good at it, and if I’m not — but you’re knocking me out tonight. You guys are doing a better job than I am.”
With the win, Duke is now 2-1 after losing at home to Arizona last week – meaning the Blue Devils have taken two tough losses in back-to-back games early in the season.
“I just thought for our team, like, for our guys, we stepped up in a big way. We want to play this schedule,” Duke head coach Jon Scheyer said. “You play Arizona, Michigan State, two of your first three games. Let’s see where we are. I learned more about this team in the first three games than maybe any team I’ve been with, as an assistant coach, as a head coach, obviously in the one year, and to react quickly in a few days, I think says a lot about their character.”
Star of the first game?
Duke freshman Caleb Foster. It was his coming out party, as he finished with a team-high 18 points, shooting 7-of-8 from the field and 4-of-5 from deep.
Now on to Kentucky and Kansas.
It was everything the first game wasn’t, because of all the tempo and crowd noise the opener lacked, the Wildcats and Jayhawks had, and more. Late in the first half, there was a rush that had a three-point bonanza between the teams. One comes from Kansas freshman Dajuan Harris Jr. Kentucky’s Rob Dillingham knocked down four 3-pointers, and Antonio Reeves hit another assisted by Dillingham, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Jayhawks big man Hunter Dickinson added to the lead as he closed out the first half by knocking down a three at the buzzer to cut the Kentucky lead to 48-41 at halftime.
And then the second half started and things got really good.
Kentucky went up. Kansas showed how a mature team handles a young and talented team. And everyone in attendance saw a hell of an ending as Kansas came back from being down 14 points. There is something special about the United Center for the Jayhawks, as this arena was a pit stop for them on their way to winning a national title in 2022.
“When we used to show up at the locker room for shootaround, I told them this is the locker room we won when we were in the Sweet 16 (and Elite 8). We just wanted to get another dub,” said Dajuan Harris, who was the starting point guard on that team.
Kansas’ Hunter Dickinson was the best player in the second game as he had 27 points and 21 rebounds in the first 20-20 game in Champions Classic history. His teammate Kevin McCullar Jr. put his name in the record book by recording only the second triple-double in the event’s historyfinished with 12 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.
“Coming into this environment with everything that goes with this, the bells and whistles, and them performing the way they did, I couldn’t ask for much more,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said of his young bunch. “Other than making a couple of free throws and a shot down the stretch.”
Tuesday night was fun. The Champions Classic serves as college basketball’s crown jewel of the non-conference schedule. Starting early in the season, four of the most prestigious programs in sports history are giving fans a preview of what they could see in March and April. Duke and Michigan State were a case study of two teams trying to figure out what they were going to become. Kentucky and Kansas gave us March Madness in November.