UK Men's Basketball

Champions Classic was ‘fact-finding mission’ for nation’s top four ranked teams

With teams ranked Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4, the Champions Classic gave promise to a glitter that would cause onlookers to avert their eyes Tuesday night. That didn’t happen.

But what did it really mean? When asked before the doubleheader how much restraint people should exercise in coming to conclusions about teams and players based on what happened in Madison Square Garden, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas answered succinctly. “Plenty,” he said.

Bilas used former Kansas guard Quentin Grimes as an example. In last year’s Champions Classic, Grimes made six of 10 three-point shots and scored 21 points in the Jayhawks’ victory over Michigan State.

“Grimes didn’t hit six threes in the next 10 games and wound up transferring,” Bilas said.

You can look it up. In the next 10 games, Grimes made five of 27 three-point shots.

“It’s an indicator,” Bilas said of the insight that can be drawn from an opening game, albeit an opening game that holds promise of creating lasting memories. “But it’s not dispositive of how good these teams are. You can lose this game and win the national championship. You can lose this game and go to the Final Four, which Michigan State did last year.”

Fellow ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said the games — Kentucky played Michigan State after Kansas played Duke — were preliminary in nature.

“Nobody’s going to have a body of work at the end of the night,” he said. “This is a starting point. This is a fact-finding mission for coaches and for players.”

The ESPN analysts suggested the possible preliminary facts to be found included a chance to see how well Kentucky and Duke would shoot from the perimeter and whether Michigan State might be susceptible to turning over the ball as it was last season. UK made six of 18 three-point shots, and Duke eight of 24. Michigan State, which was hampered by turnovers last season, committed 16.

Before the first dribble, Greenberg christened Kansas as the nation’s best team. The Jayhawks had great depth, a dynamic point guard and a completeness that separates them from others, he said.

But much can change, and likely will, the ESPN analysts said.

“This isn’t football,” Bilas said. “So you don’t have to live with the loss as a stain on your record (that) people are going to use against you in picking the Final Four. We don’t pick a Final Four. You get to play for it.”

‘Good night for basketball’

As a promotional vehicle for college basketball, the Champions Classic was much more Brink’s truck than clown car.

“You’re talking about the world’s most famous arena,” Greenberg said of Madison Square Garden.

Then you had the top four ranked teams. Hall of Fame coaches. Tradition-rich programs.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Greenberg said.

A question: Does college basketball need such a vehicle to promote itself.

“I don’t know,” Bilas said before adding, “It’s helpful. If you’re excited to see it, I don’t see how that’s anything but good for basketball. And I don’t look at it as college basketball. It’s just basketball. It’s a good night for basketball.”

This is nothing new, Bilas said.

“It’s great every year,” he said. “We’re making a big deal out of 1-2-3-4 But what’s the difference if it’s 2-4-5-6?”

Rematch anyone?

Both UK and Michigan State had more turnovers than assists. They combined for 43 fouls and 50 free throws.

“Tommy (Izzo) and I said afterward, neither one of us played great,” Calipari said. “We just made a couple plays late and they didn’t. My hope would be late, late, late, late, we’re playing them again. Like late, late, late. Like (only) two of us left.”

Ready for March?

Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo echoed Calipari’s sentiment about neither team playing especially well. He extended it to the first game, which saw Duke beat Kansas 68-66.

“None of these teams are ready for February and March,” Izzo said. “What did Kansas have? One hundred turnovers?”

Actually, Kansas had 28 turnovers in the loss to Duke.

“So my 16 are really good,” Izzo said of Michigan State’s turnovers.

Izzo also noted that Duke shot poorly (35.9 percent).

Beating No. 1

Kentucky beat a No. 1 team for the ninth time in program history. That tied Duke and Ohio State for the fourth-most victories against a top-ranked opponent.

North Carolina has the most victories against a No. 1 team with 14. UCLA is second with 12 and Maryland third with 10.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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