Nine days before Thanksgiving, there were four on the Georgia Dome floor. Come April 6 there will be four on this same floor, and if the past is a guide, some of these contestants will be included in that Final Four.
The Champions Classic, which alit here Tuesday night, is in Year 2 of its rotation. (Last year it was New York; next year it’s Chicago.) The teams that played in the final game of the 2011 Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden – Kentucky and Kansas – also graced the 2012 NCAA final in the Superdome. That’s known as a leading indicator.
The same foursome from last season’s Champions Classic was in place again, albeit in a different configuration. Kansas got Michigan State this time. Kentucky played Duke, and Kentucky and Duke, as you may have heard, have an NCAA tournament history.
From Rupp’s Runts outgunning Vic Bubas’ team in the 1966 Final Four to Jack Givens scoring 41 points in the 1978 championship game to the Blue Devils upending the Big Blue at Rupp Arena in 1980 to the epic Christian Laettner fallaway in 1992 to the almost-as-epic Wildcats comeback from 18 down in 1998, Kentucky-Duke has become the collegiate version of Lakers-Celtics. They don’t meet in the Big Dance every year, but when they do it’s memorable.
This being November, the stakes were rather less. Consensus among the assembled media was that Duke, being much more seasoned, would have an edge on John Calipari’s latest gathering of lottery picks. (The flaw in the Calipari Method is that, with almost everyone leaving for the NBA after one season, you’re always starting over.) And with sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow of Walton High back in Lexington with flu-like symptoms, it wasn’t clear that the Wildcats were ready for a such a test.
Turns out they weren’t. The Devils trailed early, but by the end of the first half their defense had begun to fluster Kentucky. With 9 ½ minutes remaining, Duke led by 14. Sparked by the grad student Julius Mays – what’s HE doing on a Calipari team? – the Wildcats would hit back, but Mays missed a trey that would have tied it. Duke won 75-68.
Said Seth Curry, the senior guard who scored 23 points: “We were composed. We’d been in that situation before.”
“What a heck of a doubleheader,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Kentucky’s so athletic. They’re good. I think we’re good, too.”
Calipari proved last season that a team powered by gifted freshmen can win it all, but not all gifted freshmen are created equal. This might end up being be the least of his four Kentucky teams. (Which isn’t really a rip, given that the first three went Elite Eight, Final Four, NCAA champs.)
Said Calipari: “We’re still trying to figure out our team.”
The Wildcats will get better as they go. That’s a guarantee. But of the four teams on display Tuesday, the reigning titlist might be the longest shot to get back in April. The otherworldly mesh the Wildcats forged last season won’t be easy to replicate.
Duke could make it back. The Devils have a nice blend of talent and experience, and their coach is the best in the business. But if you’re expecting the Champions Classic to generate another title-game matchup, the smarter money would be on the participants in Tuesday’s Game 1 – Michigan State and Kansas.
The Spartans wore down Kansas to win 67-64, and the classic Tom Izzo fusion of grit and strength will only be buttressed by the addition of freshman wing Gary Harris, who scored 18 points in his second collegiate game. (Sitting two rows behind the State bench was Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory, once an Izzo assistant. One row behind Gregory was Spartans fan John Smoltz; one row in front was the Spartans letterman Steve Smith.)
The Jayhawks, meanwhile, have size underneath and speed on the perimeter and a sleek freshman of their own in forward Perry Ellis, who was bumped off-stride by the beefy State men but who figures to be a force soon. Kansas finished second to Kentucky last season, and nothing suggests the Jayhawks can’t move upward this time.
Then again, any of these four could develop into a champion. Said Krzyzewski: “It helps all the teams to play in this atmosphere.”
It was a splendid night of hoops – a nice crowd of 22,847, four storied programs playing two high-level games. But for all the hype that accompanies any Kentucky-Duke meeting, remember the opener of this twin bill. We could well see Michigan State and Kansas meet in this city again, and their repeat collision wouldn’t be at all unwelcome.
By Mark Bradley