INDIANAPOLIS — For six hours on Tuesday night, Indianapolis hosted one big college basketball party.
“That was incredible. It’s what the Champions Classic is about, the blue bloods going at it,” said Jalen Wilson inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse at 1:03 a.m. Wednesday morning. The Kansas superstar and reigning national champion was exactly right.
The night reminded us of the sport’s pageantry and emotion, with a capacity crowd of 17,923 fans providing an atmosphere that tasted like March.
The games lived up to the hype, with Michigan State upsetting No. 4 Kentucky in double overtime, 86-77. Kansas and Duke followed with a thriller of their own, a 69-64 comeback win for the Jayhawks. Big-time stars emerged, emotions ran high and this early-season event felt like the first signal that college basketball had returned after an anticlimactic opening week of action.
Let’s face it: With football in full swing and the FIFA World Cup on the horizon, there is no shortage of sports to consume. But on this night, college basketball took center stage, and it didn’t wither. It delivered, giving folks a reason to follow it on the road to March Madness.
Here are the takeaways from a thrilling doubleheader in Indy:
Tom Izzo reminded everybody why he’s a Hall of Famer
Michigan State was trailing 61-58 with 2:17 to play in regulation, then 67-62 in the first overtime period. Multiple times, it looked like the Spartans were going to have to swallow a tough pill and take a 1-2 start to their season thanks to facing two of the top four teams in the AP Top 25.
But four nights removed from the Armed Forces Classic game on an aircraft carrier in San Diego, Michigan State showed the immediate benefits of being battle-tested. The Spartans finished, and Izzo outdid John Calipari in late-game execution, something the Kentucky head coach blamed himself for after the loss.
Malik Hall came up with game-tying dunks to force both overtimes. Despite 18 turnovers in regulation, Michigan State did not commit a single giveaway in either overtime period. Joey Hauser caught fire and Mady Sissoko capitalized on Oscar Tshiebwe fouling out. AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker combined for 15 assists. A team that has all five starters back showed that it was a downright crime to be excluded from the preseason Top 25. The top-five win brought emotion out of Izzo, who had been criticized for not adding any transfers in the offseason to upgrade his roster. Instead, he stuck by his returners in favor of developing them, despite doubts from the outside.
“This was a big program win for us,” Izzo said. “It’s an incredible feeling. When I read things where players said ‘He could’ve gone out and got players. He believed in me (instead).’ That’s an incredible feeling. That’s what my frickin’ program stands for. That’s what it’s gonna stand for. I think some of the culture that I lost during COVID and some of the things that I went on at our place, I vowed that we’re gonna get that back. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Hauser, whose shooting stroke came up huge time and again on Tuesday night, looked at Friday’s 64-63 defeat to the Zags as a catalyst.
“We always thought we could play with the best of the best, but that game against Gonzaga showed us that,” Hauser said. ” It gave us confidence that we could play with anybody. We’ll take on anyone, any time, any day. These are the types of games we want to play in and the types of games that we feel like we can win.”
Mady Sissoko’s monster alley-oop slam caps career night
The big man in the middle played a big role as Michigan State upset No. 4 Kentucky.
Kentucky, Calipari have things to work on
The Wildcats had their chances to put Michigan State away but were unable to finish. They led the game for more than 33 minutes, but more of the same problems that have bothered Kentucky teams in recent years came up again. Late-game management was not strong.
The biggest issue? The offense was so stagnant down the stretch, with no movement happening off the ball and the Wildcats failing to get high-percentage shots. Yes, Tshiebwe fouled out in the final minute of the first overtime period, but UK did not hit a field goal in the final four minutes of the game and was outscored 13-1 to end the contest.
As much as senior point guard Sahvir Wheeler did some nice things, he also forced the issue late in the game, scoring 16 points but needing 16 shots to get there. CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves were cold, going a combined 3-for-14 from the floor.
On a positive note, Tshiebwe looked great with 22 points, 18 boards and four blocks, and Cason Wallace’s fingerprints were all over the game. The five-star freshman tied the single-game UK record with eight steals.
Can Kentucky make a deep March run? Of course. But it must improve in late-game situations and produce better offense. It can’t all be Tshiebwe. As Izzo said, “Kentucky fans, don’t get off the ship.”
By the same token, Calipari’s accountability is telling and reveals that this team has to figure out certain things to shake off the demons that have risen up in Indianapolis.
“When you talk about late-game situations, that’s on me as a coach,” Calipari said. “Let’s figure this out.”
The Wildcats have no time to waste with a trip to meet No. 2 Gonzaga in Spokane on Sunday.
Kansas shows championship mettle in closing time
Duke led 59-54 with 4:37 to go, putting the Jayhawks — who had blown an 11-point, second-half lead — up against the wall.
But the stabilizing players who know what it takes to win showcased their closing ability. Wilson scored a career-high 25 points. Dajuan Harris tallied a career-high 10 assists. Two players that had done it on the biggest stage, last April’s national championship game, were unfazed through it all.
“I felt it quite a bit,” said Kansas’ Norm Roberts, who’s filling in for the suspended Bill Self, when asked if he felt the experience level of Wilson and Harris make an impact. “Those guys had an unbelievable fight about them. They never gave in. They never panicked. The whole time, through the ups and downs of the game, Dajuan and Jalen were also settling us down and talking with the rest of our guys. I felt their presence quite a bit.”
The Champions Classic is known for breakout stars being born, and that was no different on Tuesday. This year’s case? Gradey Dick.
The highly-touted freshman wing did not attempt a single shot in the first 17 minutes and 37 seconds of the second half.
“We had to send out a missing person report for him in the second half,” Roberts said with a laugh.
From the 2:22 mark to 1:04 being left on the clock, Dick scored seven straight points, including a huge triple on a night in which the Jayhawks shot just 3-for-19 from downtown.
“It just shows his confidence,” Wilson said when asked about Dick’s clutch shot-making. “It shows his courage and his composure. I know in his mind he knows that his next shot is going in, and that’s the type of guy we need him to be.”
“Jalen (Wilson) and Dajuan (Harris) have been where we want to be,” Dick said of how much the leaders of the team have helped him as a freshman. “They told me my chance would come again (in this game).”
Dick seized that opportunity, and the Jayhawks closed with defense.
There are reasons for optimism at Duke
Sometimes, you don’t understand what you really have on your team until it’s thrown into the fire.
Tuesday night, that was the case for Duke. Outside Jeremy Roach, the Blue Devils went through more roster changes than anybody in the offseason, not to mention having the first head coach not named Mike Krzyzewski in 42 years.
Nine minutes into the matchup with Kansas, Duke was down 19-8. It looked like the Jayhawks could smoke them. But, Jon Scheyer’s team counter-punched and settled in, a fitting way for the Blue Devils to perform in their new leader’s first big game.
Seven-footer Kyle Filipowski became the first Blue Devils freshman to start his season with three consecutive double-doubles, notching 17 points and 14 rebounds. Roach scored 16 points, albeit on 17 shots. Tyrese Proctor found a rhythm and was an X-factor with nine points. And, while it wasn’t a pretty performance for the Blue Devils offense, which shot 3-for-21 from beyond the arc, Duke adjusted throughout the game and was at its best when attacking the rim. It was a loss, but at this early stage of the season, Kansas has more certainties than Duke, and it showed.
“Playing in the Champions Classic every year, of course you want to come away winning, but you probably learn more when you lose,” Scheyer said. “Even if we won that game, we would’ve won not being at our best with the way we took care of the ball (18 turnovers). It hurts, that’s how it should feel. But there is a lot to learn from this.”
For Duke, to weather the Kansas storm, defend the way it did and have a chance to win late, says a lot about a team just scratching the surface. And remember the Devils did it without another five-star freshman in wing Dariq Whitehead. He is still coming back from a foot injury, but the way Scheyer sounded after the game, it seems within reason that Whitehead could make his Duke debut at the Phil Knight Legacy event in Portland next week.
The Blue Devils have pieces and should be pleased with their position, with the weeks and months to come to hash out their offense and develop their freshmen even more.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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