Hats off to the organizers of the Champions Classic basketball doubleheader last night in the “House That Michael Made Famous,” the United Center in Chicago. It’s exhilarating to be able to see championship basketball of the quality and madness normally reserved for much later in the season in the opening days of the new college basketball season.
The United Center, where the magical Michael Jordan did his number on NBA opponents so often and for so long in the decade of the 1990s, has seen more than its share of great basketball memories and moments. But it certainly would be hard to top the thrills and excitement generated in the two college games contested Tuesday night, just four days into the 2013-14 season.
Four of the top six teams in the country, according to the preseason national polls, were paired against one another for a one-night classic showdown that was more like a Final Four matchup than the second game in a long college hoops season. No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 4 Duke and No. 6 Kansas…it doesn’t get much better than that.
In fact, most Final Four pairings aren’t as good as that lineup. It sounds more like a pairing of NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds. Before, of course, they have to win their way to the national semifinals, which often does not work out that way.
Bringing it back to Tuesday night’s Champions Classic, you have to give the coaches of the four teams, and the school’s themselves, credit for having the courage and the attitude to schedule such a high-level, high-visibilty game so early in the season. Many coaches, it seems, are more concerned about player and team development and getting early wins from which to build confidence and momentum and get their teams battle tested before conference play and what many in college basketball call the real season, which commences in late December, early January.
Kansas head coach Bill Self has never shied away from playing tough games against quality opponents early in the schedule. He might prefer having a couple more tune-up games under the belt before submitting his team to a top-five opponent like was the case Tuesday night in Chicago against perennial college basketball powerhouse Duke. But as a result of his two decades of head-coaching experience (at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and, for 10 of the past 20 seasons, at Kansas) the Jayhawks coach knows that matchups like this early in the season can offer high reward, but at incredible risk.
What’s more, the risk can be even greater when you have a young team, like the Jayhawks this season, that were all high school superstars, heavily recruited and used to winning, but had never played one second of college basketball before four days ago. To fail and have that reality slammed in your face so early in your college career can havc lasting negative implications for a team and the individuals involved.
The opening game of the Tuesday night doubleheader between top-ranked Kentucky and a more veteran and experienced Michigan State team couldn’t have been a better opening act. The more veteran Spartans jumped out to an early double-digit lead and were up by 12 at the half over the equally talented but much more youthful Wildcats of Kentucky, The Kentucky diaper dandies, as college basketball analyst Dick Vitale likes to call first-year college players, fought hard and mounted several rallies, but were never quite able to get over the top when they got the score close, finally falling by four points, 78-74.
Kentucky had even more inexperience in its starting lineup than Kansas did against Duke. The Dukies threatened to pull away several times in the opening half against the Jayhawks after jumping out to a quick 5-0 advantage. Led by super freshman Andrew Wiggins, the country’s No. 1 prospect in last year’s basketball recruiting wars, and second-year player Perry Ellis, himself a high recruit in Bill Self’s 2012 recruiting class that also brought in one-and-done Ben McLemore, Kansas never let Duke pull away, seemingly countering every Blue Devil run with one of its own.
I can’t recall in quite some time viewing a game between two great college basketball teams that was so closely contested, practically from the opening tip to almost the very end. Duke managed to cling to a very narrow lead throughout much of the game. The two teams went back and forth in the second half until just about three minute remained. After the 13th tie of the game, Kansas freshman Wayne Selden Jr. tipped in a bucket to give Kansas a two-point lead, 81-79, that the Jayhawks never relinquished. The result was an upset win over an exceptionally talented and well-coached Duke team that Self’s team is likely to see again on the road to the 2014 NCAA Baketball Championship.
All in all, a great ending to a terrific night of basketball, and a storybook ending for Kansas fans, who have suffered through another painful and all too familiar season of near-winless Jayhawk football.
There is a very good reason why Kansas is able to win nine consecutive Big 12 basketball championships. Their rock-solid – or should I say, rock-chalk? – basketball heritage and long winning tradition has established the Jayhawks as one of college basketball’s elite brands. They have one of the country’s best coaches – it’s no coincidence that KU’s nine consecutive conference crowns have come on Self’s watch – and top recruits seek out Kansas, which makes it that much easier to reel them in year after year and extablish a continuity of top talent
Not many college programs can stand to lose their entire starting five and manage to come back even stronger than the year before. Only two immediately come to mind, and they both share the sports nickname “Big Blue.” It’s easy to understand why Kentucky and Kansas are the two winningest programs all-time in college basketball.
Oh, and one more bit of historical trivia: Where did Kentucky basketball coaching legend, Adolph Rupp, who coached the Wildcats for 42 years and after whom the basketball arena at Kentucky is named, play his college basketball? At Kansas, of course, under the great Phog Allen, for whom Allen Fieldhouse is named.