Don't overreact to the Champions Classic: A collection of cautionary tales from a thrilling night in college basketballSporting News — (Mike DeCourcy)
NEW YORK — The introduction of the Champions Classic in 2011 gave college basketball fans one of the best season openers in American sports.
While pro sports don’t have much choice but to schedule ordinary games and the best college football teams are busy ducking one another to remain viable for the Playoff committee, four of the most accomplished programs in NCAA basketball history gather in one spot and battle each other.
Michigan State has reached eight Final Fours in the past 20 years. Duke has won five NCAA championships. Kansas just had its incredible streak of 14 consecutive Big 12 championships ended last winter. Kentucky has reached 17 Final Fours in its history, with four such seasons launched through this event.
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Tuesday at Madison Square Garden it will be No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 4 Duke at 7 p.m., followed by No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky. Putting four heavyweights into one crucible can lead to some magnificent basketball. It has produced eight Final Four teams and two national champions (Kentucky 2012 and Duke 2015).
It also can lead to some profound overreactions. Whatever happens in these two games, there are many more to follow. That’s a lesson to learn from these previous results.
1. Kentucky manhandles Kansas in 2011
A close game through 21 minutes became a runaway when the Wildcats ran off 11 straight points early in the second half, and the lead grew as large as 17 points with 10 minutes remaining.
Kansas coach Bill Self appeared exasperated afterward. The Jayhawks shot only 33 percent, turned over the ball 14 times and didn’t score their 40th point until 9:29 remained. By the end of the season, though, KU was in the NCAA championship game against these same Wildcats, and the outcome wasn’t decided until the final minute.
2. Michigan State struggles against Duke in 2014
The Spartans lost a ton of talent and experience from an Elite Eight team the year before and entered this game ranked only 19th. It looked like the preseason polls had that right. MSU allowed four of Duke’s five starters to score at least 15 points, to shoot 54 percent from the field and to play nearly error-free with the ball.
The Spartans trailed for all but a minute of the game.
Duke wound up winning the championship that year, but the Spartans eventually showed Tom Izzo-style toughness and fought their way to a surprising Final Four appearance.
3. Kansas is obliterated by Kentucky in 2014
This was not only the most one-sided game in the history of the Champions Classic, it might have been the most one-sided in the history of high-major basketball. (Oh, sorry, that’s wrong: the next month in the CBS Sports Classic, UK held UCLA to seven points in a half).
Kansas had zero chance. The Jayhawks shot 19.6 percent. They did not have a single player score in double figures. They scored 12 points in the second half. UK had 12 different players get into the scorebook and got playing time for four walk-ons.
And then Kansas wound up 27-9, continuing that string of Big 12 titles. It wasn’t one of Self’s better teams, but it wasn’t the embarrassment portended by this defeat.
4. Quentin Grimes shoots the lights out in 2018
Just last November, at the event in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, prized KU freshman Grimes opened his career by scoring 21 points on 6-of-10 long-range shooting. He looked like the very model of the NBA shooting guard. If you looked at a mock draft after that game, he’d have ranked among the top 10 prospects.
He scored in double figures twice in the next 10 games, even though the opposition rarely was of MSU-caliber. He shot 5-of-29 from 3-point range in that stretch and wound up averaging 8.4 points for the year.
He still was capable of a big shooting night, as when he hit 5-of-8 on threes in a Big 12 Tournament semifinal victory, but he was more prone to droughts like the one that hit in the league title game (0-of-6) and continued into the NCAAs (3-of-11).
When it came time to consider whether he was a one-and-done, Grimes rightly realized he really might be done if he spent just one year in college hoops. He transferred to Houston and will play this year for the Cougars.
5. Zion embarrasses Kentucky in 2018
What we saw last year from Zion Williamson at the Champions Classic turned out to be real. He scored 28 points and R.J. Barrett scored 33 as the Blue Devils rang up 59 points in each half of a 118-84 blowout that wasn’t even that close.
It took the Wildcats a while to recover from that disaster. They dropped an overtime game to Seton Hall and struggled to get free from such teams as VMI and Southern Illinois.
Eventually, though, P.J. Washington developed into one of the season’s best players and UK earned a No. 2 NCAA Tournament seed and a spot in the Elite Eight, where they fell an overtime period short of John Calipari’s fifth Final Four with the Wildcats.
They finished 30-7, proof they weren’t finished after the first of those defeats.