The Biggest Takeaways from the 2013 Champions Classic
The Final Four doesn’t come around until April, but as far as college basketball fans were concerned, November’s Champions Classic was the next best thing.
The United Center played host to four of the nation’s top five teams Tuesday night as Kentucky squared off with Michigan State and Duke locked horns with Kansas. While these games didn’t knock anyone out of the national title race, as they might in football, it gave coaches an opportunity to see where their respective squads stood among the country’s best.
Ultimately, Michigan State beat Kentucky, 78-74, and Kansas beat Duke, 94-83.
Read on to get some takeaways from the 2013 Champions Classic.
Julius Randle Is a Beast
Kentucky basically brought in every 5-star recruit with a pulse this year, but there were questions about who the alpha dog would be in crunch time.
Those questions may have disappeared after Tuesday night.
It may have ultimately been in a losing effort, but Julius Randle firmly entrenched himself in any debates about who will be the next No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Randle dominated inside and put up 27 points while grabbing 13 rebounds. The fact that he did it against one of the most physical teams in the country should not go unnoticed.
Randle was able to get the Spartans’ interior guys in foul trouble and almost carried his squad out of a sizable deficit. If he can cut down on the turnovers, he has a chance to be one of the very best players in the nation all season and will continue to get better as the year progresses.
The rest of the SEC is officially on notice.
Michigan State Is More Than Just 'Experienced'
The easy and somewhat lazy storyline coming into this game was the talent of Kentucky versus the experience of Michigan State, but there was plenty of talent on the Spartans sideline as well.
Gary Harris and Keith Appling teamed up to teach the Harrison brothers a lesson or two, especially when the game was hanging in the balance. Appling ended up with 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and four steals, while Harris posted 20 points and three steals.
The Michigan State backcourt was just better on Tuesday. Throw in the 15 points from Adreian Payne, and nine rebounds and four critical steals from Branden Dawson, and the core pieces for the Spartans clearly came to play.
Yes, Michigan State is experienced, but it is much more than that. Tom Izzo’s guys can play.
Kentucky Still Needs Some Time
John Calipari didn’t do much to earn any love from his legions of haters by complaining how it was unfair that his young team had to go against Michigan State so early, but it was clear which team came ready to play from the start.
The Spartans jumped out to a 10-0 lead by the first TV timeout, which forced the freshmen-laden Wildcats to dig out from a hole all game. That clearly took its toll late, as Michigan State finished strong.
The 40-0 talk surrounding Kentucky before the season was far too premature and an exercise in hyperbole. This team still needs some time to gel, which frankly is a scary notion for the rest of the country. Once all these freshmen figure out how to play alongside each other and maximize their respective strengths, they should dominate the SEC.
But the Wildcats weren’t ready for the Spartans. At least not yet.
Michigan State Won the Battle, but the War May Not Be over
There is a reason Michigan State and Kentucky were ranked in the No. 1 and 2 spots heading into this game.
Both squads are loaded with weapons on the perimeter and in the paint. Whether it is Randle and Payne on the interior, or Harris, Appling and the Harrison brothers on the outside, or Dawson and James Young on the wing, the talent level on the United Center court was alarming.
Michigan State got the best of Calipari’s squad and will in all likelihood be No. 1 in the next poll, but this might not be the last game we see between these teams. The Spartans will be battle-tested in the deep Big Ten and the Wildcats will only progress game by game, so we could be headed for a late March or early April showdown.
If the Champions Classic was exciting because it felt like the Final Four, just imagine what it will be like if these teams actually play during college basketball’s marquee event.
There’s a Reason He Was the Best Prospect Since LeBron
All the hype this offseason belonged to Andrew Wiggins, but Jabari Parker was the one who graced the Sports Illustrated cover as the best high school prospect since LeBron James.
In a homecoming of sorts for the Chicago native, Parker showed the nation just how talented he is. Yes, it came in a losing effort, but it still likely caught the eyes of NBA scouts.
Parker ended up with 27 points, nine rebounds and three steals and demonstrated just how much of an offensive weapon he will be this year. He hit 4-of-7 from behind the three-point line and 9-of-18 overall. He drove past defenders with ease and carried the Blue Devils for much of the game.
Parker has to be considered the favorite for ACC Player of the Year right now.
But Andrew Wiggins Made the Big Plays When It Mattered
Andrew Wiggins struggled with foul trouble for much of the game (who didn’t?) and was outplayed by Jabari Parker for stretches, but he made the winning plays at the end.
Wiggins hit a monumental step-back jumper when the game was still in the balance in the final minutes and then converted on an and-1 dunk seconds later that basically put the game on ice. What’s more, it fouled out Parker and took away Duke’s go-to option for the final minute.
Wiggins ended up with 22 points and 10 rebounds even though he had to sit out for extended periods of time. There will be some major critics if and when Wiggins struggles this year after all the hype, but he showed the nation how talented he was in a head-to-head showdown with Parker and the Blue Devils.
Most importantly, his team got the win.
Kansas Has Some Impressive Fans
Anytime college basketball hosts a marquee event on a neutral floor with multiple teams, the crowd factor is always interesting.
When it is the NCAA tournament, fans of other schools often support the underdog, but there really weren’t any underdogs involved with four of the top five teams in the nation at the Champions Classic.
Kansas’ fans were impressive Tuesday night. In an event that included Big Blue Nation, a not-too-far-from-Chicago Michigan State, and national brand Duke, the Jayhawk supporters were the loudest and most prominent. It appeared that there were more Kansas fans in the United Center than any other school.
Props to the Jayhawks for showing up on a mid-week night in November and finishing an incredible day of college basketball with the famous Rock Chalk chant. No wonder Allen Fieldhouse is so difficult to play in for visitors.
There Will Be an Adjustment Period with the New Rules
College basketball put in new rules this season that were designed to open up freedom of motion for offensive players and ultimately increase scoring and the excitement level of the game.
However, all fans have been treated to thus far has been a constant barrage of whistles. Tyler Thornton and Jabari Parker both fouled out for Duke, while Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon ended up with four each. And Andrew Wiggins sat for extended periods with foul trouble on the Kansas sideline.
In the first game, Julius Randle made a living on the free-throw line with 15 shots from the charity stripe (Kentucky as a team shot 36).
Even the king of basketball himself, LeBron James, weighed in on the effect of the rule changes.
Regardless of the foul calls, fans were still treated to incredibly high-quality basketball all night. What a start to the 2013 college basketball season.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.