INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Four teams, 19 national championships, 60 trips to the Final Four. The gilded quartet had their annual exercise of let’s-do-this-in-November-and-hopefully-again-in-April Tuesday night. Also known as the Champions Classic. And when it was finished — Michigan State over Kentucky 86-77 in double overtime, Kansas over Duke 69-64 — these were some of the souvenir numbers to take away from Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
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46-26: Kansas’ record against Associated Press top-10 opponents in the Bill Self era after beating No. 7 Duke. Except, where was Bill Self Tuesday night? Oh yeah. Still suspended, and watching the game on TV in an Indianapolis hotel room. He had to like what he saw. He had stressed to the Jayhawks at practice to make sure they played as a team. Well, they had 21 assists. “He’s been coaching them really hard,” said Norm Roberts, the assistant filling in.
2-1: Now the record of the new Duke coach after his first loss in his third game. Wait a second, wasn’t that Mike Krzyzewski 42 years ago? Yep, but now the same for Jon Scheyer. Coach K lost to North Carolina. Scheyer fell to Kansas, and dropping a close one was another part of his education, he figures.
“These guys need to get a feel for me, we need to get a feel for each other,” Scheyer said. “I thought that hurt us down the stretch. We haven’t been in a tight game. Those moments I think are really important for us to be in together. I promise you every game we play there’s always going to be something I feel I can do better.”
38-26: Michigan State’s record the past two years, which also included seventh and eighth place finishes in the Big Ten and quick exits in the NCAA Tournament. In modern basketball, the next step seemed obvious: Hit the transfer portal! Not in Tom Izzo’s world. Michigan State lost its top three scorers from last season but Izzo wanted to stick with his own rather than reboot the lineup. Now look what’s happened.
In four days, the unranked Spartans have taken down No. 4 Kentucky and nearly did the same thing to No. 2 Gonzaga, losing by a point. His players have said how much they appreciate Izzo sticking with them. When the matter came up after the Spartans outlasted Kentucky Tuesday night, Izzo had to take a second to collect his emotions, as if he were about to shoot a crucial free throw.
“That’s an incredible feeling. That’s what my fricking program stands for, that’s what it’s going to stand for,” he said. “Loyalty’s a two-way street.
“I’m just proud of my guys and I think some of the culture that I lost during Covid and some of the things that went on at our place, I vowed that we were going to get that back and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
17: Minutes it took Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe to get a double-double, once he entered the game against Michigan State after the first TV timeout. Barely four weeks ago he had knee surgery and Tuesday night was his first game back. He went for 22 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks before fouling out late in the first overtime. Without him, Michigan State finally shoved past the Wildcats. “For Oscar to do what he did, without playing for four weeks and never practice, c’mon, that’s ridiculous,” John Calipari said.
The Tshiebwe Player of the Year campaign is officially open.
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15-5: The closing run Kansas put on Duke to take away the game. The Jayhawks did what the Jayhawks often do, finding another level at crunch time. It worked well enough last spring. Or as Scheyer noted. “They’ve been here before.”
He specifically meant Jalen Wilson and Dajuan Harris, two of the Kansas holdovers from the national champions. We can already see where this is going for Kansas. Wilson had 25 points and 11 rebounds and is providing the leadership. Harris had 10 assists and one turnover and is supplying the poise. His assist-turnover ratio after three games is 23-2. Clearly their championship pedigree will mean something in tight squeezes, such as the second half against Duke. “I felt it quite a bit,” Roberts said. “Those two guys never gave.”
But 11 of the last 13 Kansas points were scored by Jayhawks not in the rotation last season, including seven points in 78 seconds by freshman Gradey Dick. Steady and savvy veterans plus new blood. Kansas isn’t going anywhere. Take Tuesday. The Jayhawks were 3-for-19 from the 3-point line, which can get a team beaten. Except Duke was 3-for-21. That’s a combined brickyard of 6-for-40 from the perimeter, but the Jayhawks were the team that found a way in the end.
“That kind of is our culture. That’s who we are,” Roberts said. “Coach always talks about there’s going to be 10 games a year where you’re playing lights out and nobody’s going to beat you. Then there’s going to be 10 games you’re going to be kind of average. And then there’s 10 games you’re going to be awful, and you’ve got to try to go 7-3 in those games. Our guys know that, we preach that. Tonight was one of those games that we didn’t shoot it well but we stayed tough and we stayed together and we made it happen.”
3: In 12 years of the Champions Classic, only three teams have entered the event unranked in the AP poll. All three were Michigan State, including this season. The Spartans won’t be out of the AP top-25 for long, but that pre-season shun put a chip on their shoulders that drove them against Gonzaga and Kentucky. “I think we always thought we could play with the best of the best but it just kind of showed us that,” said Joey Hauser, who went from 0-for-5 shooting against Gonzaga to 23 points against Kentucky. “That’s what we’re made of.”
They beat the Wildcats by saving the game twice on last-second, overtime-forcing dunks by Malik Hall; the first at the end of regulation, the next at the end of the first overtime. Both were astonishing breakdowns in the Kentucky defense. But such persistence is necessary with the death march of a schedule Izzo insists on playing every season. Should Michigan State and North Carolina advance to the finals of next week’s tournament in Portland, the Spartans will have met three of the top four ranked teams in the nation in the first three weeks. Also on the slate is Villanova Friday, a trip to Notre Dame later this month, and then the grind of the Big Ten.
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“That’s why you come to Michigan State,” Hauser said. “Coach Izzo’s not afraid of anyone. . . This is what we want to do, these are the games we want to be in. These are the games we feel like we can win. We’ll take on anyone, any time, any day.”
Izzo has his reasons for his annual gauntlets. “I’m not breaking Mike’s (Krzyzewski) record, so I’ve got nothing to play for as far as wins. I’ve got something to play for as far as what we do for my program, my university and the players that come there get to experience things.
“We set our goals this summer that we’re going to play this thing. The goal was every day this summer, don’t take a day off. I thought that mentality really helped us.”
That’s why no win can be savored for long, since another brute is always coming. “I don’t want to see us too overly enthused about it,” Hall said of Tuesday night. “It’s a great win, I want us to enjoy it, but we also have to keep stacking them.”
45-9: Kentucky’s advantage in bench points against Michigan State. Outstanding. Except that was because Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler are coming off injuries and didn’t start. They had 38 points between them. Their absence has hindered normal development, Calipari said, and could partially explain how the Wildcats left Hall so utterly open for his dunks.
“We did enough to win the game but we were discombobulated at times,” Calipari said. “I told everybody we’re not ready for teams that are ready to finish off the end of the game. And that’s on me.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff to figure out.”
0-4: Calipari’s record the past five years in Gainbridge Fieldhouse. What’s Indy got against this poor guy? You could understand if he got a stress headache just walking into the place.
This is where Duke blew away the Wildcats 118-84 in the 2018 Champions Classic, Calipari’s worst loss at Kentucky. This is where Kansas edged the Wildcats 65-62 in the 2020 Champions Classic, played before a mostly empty house with the pandemic in full rage, and an early omen of the awful 9-16 season to come. This is where Kentucky lost the lead in the final seconds against Michigan State on Tuesday night. Twice. And for the unkindest cut of all, this is where the Saint Peter’s Cinderella run was born last March with an 85-79 overtime first-round shocker of Kentucky.
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18: Duke turnovers against Kansas. Put that together with 35.8 percent shooting and a loss is not surprising. But it is a mostly new roster with a new young coach, and there will be rough patches.
“I thought they made us work harder on defense than we made them work,” Scheyer said. “I think it’s just going to give us great perspective on how hard you have to work on and off the ball to get good shots.
“There’s no question that’s the best form of learning, just being in these moments. There’s no way to simulate it. That doesn’t mean I’m happy or I enjoyed this loss by any means. You have to hate it and learn from it and grow from it.”
11: With Duke’s downfall, the ACC already has 11 non-conference defeats. To compare, the Big Ten has two.
The struggles have been widespread. Louisville is 0-3 for the first time in 36 years and is the first team in more than four decades to open a season with three consecutive one-point losses. Florida State is 0-3 for the first time in the Leonard Hamilton era. Five of those six combined defeats for those two sturdy names were at home, and the six who did the beating were Stetson, Bellarmine, Wright State, UCF, Appalachian State and Troy.
Remember when Syracuse lost to Colgate last season for the first time in 59 years? It happened again. On the Tuesday night Jim Boeheim was supposed to get his 1,000th career win for the Orange, Colgate showed up in Syracuse and buried 19 3-pointers. Also in the past week, Maine upset Boston College for its first win against a Power Five school in 12 years and West Virginia thrashed Pittsburgh by 25 points, its most lopsided victory over the Panthers since 1968.
The ACC record could even be shaken. Georgia Tech barely escaped Georgia State by two points, Wake Forest went overtime against Utah Valley, Notre Dame edged Radford by three. Even No. 1 North Carolina had to struggle to shake off Gardner-Webb by six points. It’s mid-November and too much should not be made of it. But it is . . . noticeable.
66: Combined turnovers by the Champions Classic teams, one more than assists. Well, it’s early. They all understand that. Four bluebloods gathered for a night to check themselves in the mirror, and then took their questions down the road toward winter, hoping they go far enough to see one another again come spring.