Champions Classic Recap
This year’s version did not disappoint. #2 Michigan State jumped out to a big lead, and then held on late, to knock off #1 Kentucky in the first game. In the 2nd game, #5 Kansas won a hard fought contest against #4 Duke.
What did we learn about these teams early in the year, and where do they need to go from here?
Julius Randle was the star of the game for the young Wildcats, and almost single-handedly brought them back in the 2nd half. His combination of strength, athleticism, and skill is a match-up nightmare; though it should be noted that he did his most damage against the smaller Branden Dawson and struggled early on against the longer Adreian Payne, and the tide changed once Payne sat with foul trouble.
James Young showed that he can be the deep threat Kentucky needs, even finishing 3 for 11 from the 3-point line. Young also showed great hustle and the ability to get to the basket, while doing a much better job guarding Gary Harris in the 2nd half.
Alex Poythress did a great deal of damage on the offensive boards, and his all-around game was probably his best since the beginning of last year. Andrew and Aaron Harrison were non-factors in any positive way, and as many pointed out as the game went on, their body language and pouting on the court was disturbing. Willie Cauley-Stein was also a non-factor, though his length could still be disruptive around the basket.
As bad as the game was at time for the Wildcats, there is still so much for them to build on as this year goes on. The talent level is immense, but lack of experience was easily seen in so many little ways. The most concerning was the defensive breakdowns, mainly because they were caused by lack of fundamental defensive knowledge.
Kentucky will be fine as the season goes on as long as the young players listen and learn from Coach Calipari.
It was expected that the veteran Spartans’ squad wouldn’t shy away from the immense Kentucky talent, and showed it quickly by jumping out to a 10-0 lead, and building as much as 17-point lead in the 1st half. The defensive game plan was phenomenal, especially playing the dribble-drive help defense to strip the ball, which led to 17 turnovers. The Spartans’ transition offense was also in late-season form, giving many quick baskets off those turnovers.
Gary Harris was phenomenal in the first half, showing off his versatile offensive game. His 2nd half performance was concerning in some way because, even though Young played tougher defense on him, Harris was not going back to the same things which made him successful in the 1st half. Still, Harris will have a great overall game to build on as the season continues.
Seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne also came up huge. Appling controlled the offense very well for ¾ of the game, and he took advantage of the inexperienced Kentucky defense to get into the lane and break down the defense. Payne was having a good game on both ends of the floor, especially guarding Randle on the defensive end, before foul trouble led him to sit long stretches in the 2nd half and Randle started to dominate.
Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine both played solid roles and their games should continue to develop as the year goes on.
Tom Izzo’s team should only get stronger as the year goes on, but they need to find a balance between their defensive intensity and the how the refs are going to call games this year.