The 2023 Champions Classic was a tale of two games

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CHICAGO — You know a game isn’t the most exciting when the biggest roar from the crowd in the first half occurs when Magic Johnson is shown on the video board. That was the story for Duke and Michigan State early on, Tuesday night. Kansas and Kentucky fans didn’t need the greatest point guard of all time to hype them up, they were “turnt” from the jump.

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The Champions Classic annually features four of the biggest brands in college basketball, and while this year’s edition saw No. 9 Duke take care of No. 18 Michigan State, 74-65, in the opener, as No. 1 Kansas took down No. 17 Kentucky, 89-84, in the nightcap, the games illustrated the lows and highs the can occur when teenagers play basketball.

First up, the Dukies and the Spartans.

At the 11:45 mark in the first half, the game was tied at 9. At the 7:41 mark, it was 12-12 as 14 total turnovers had been committed before Duke took a 31-20 lead into the half. The teams shot a dismal 4-for-21 from deep. My halftime notes read like this:

Bad shooting. Dead crowd. No flow. No runs.

And then the second half started and things began to feel like how a Duke and Michigan State game should — a game that’s gonna be tight in the final 20 minutes and determined in the final possessions.

Tyson Walker started to cook for the Spartans and Duke showed some toughness on the boards and knocked down some timely shots to keep Michigan State at a distance. The Blue Devils surprisingly won the rebounding edge, 35-33, as the Spartans’ poor shooting is why they’re leaving Chicago with a 1-2 record.

Michigan State finished the game 26-for-63 from the field and were 6-for-19 from deep. Coming into the game, the Spartans had only made 2 of the 31 three-pointers they’d attempted. As you can guess, it was all people wanted to talk about in the postgame press conference.

“Well, if I listen to you guys, I might as well just call it a year,” said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo. “Level of concern, level of concern, level of concern. I mean, we lost the game, you know? The last game that we lost we had some problems shooting the ball, but that was also the game that we were in a lot of foul trouble and Malik and A.J. were cramping up the whole second half.

“It’s funny how everybody just picks out the negative things. I mean, I’m really good at that, and if I’m not — but you guys are beating me out tonight. You guys are doing a better job than me.”

With the win, Duke now stands at 2-1 after coming off a loss to Arizona at home last week — meaning that the Blue Devils played two heavy hitters in back-to-back games early in the season.

“I just thought for our team, like, for our guys, we stepped up in a big way. We want to play this schedule,” said Duke head coach Jon Scheyer. “You play Arizona, Michigan State, two of your first three games. Let’s see where we’re at. I’ve learned more about this team in the first three games than maybe any team I’ve been with, as an assistant coach, as a head coach, obviously in the one year, and to respond that quickly in a couple days, I think says a lot about their character.”

Star of the first game?

Duke freshman Caleb Foster. It was his coming out party as he finished with a team-high 18 points, shooting 7-of-8 from the field and 4-of-5 from deep.

Now on to Kentucky and Kansas.

It was everything the first game wasn’t, because of all the pace and crowd noise that the opener was missing, the Wildcats and Jayhawks had, and more. Late in the first half, there was a spurt that featured a three-point bonanza between the teams. One came from Kansas’ Dajuan Harris Jr. Kentucky freshman Rob Dillingham knocked down four trey balls, and Antonio Reeves hit another that was assisted by Dillingham and left those in attendance in a frenzy.

Jayhawks big man Hunter Dickinson upped the ante when he ended the first half by knocking down a three at the buzzer, cutting the Kentucky lead to 48-41 at the break.

And then the second half got started and things got really good.

Kentucky went up. Kansas showed how a mature team handles a young and talented squad. And everybody in attendance got to see a helluva ending, as Kansas came back after being down 14 points. There’s something special about the United Center for the Jayhawks as this arena was a pit stop for them on their way to winning a national title in 2022.

“When we pulled up to the locker room for shootaround earlier I told them that this was the locker room we won when we were in the Sweet 16 (and Elite 8). We just wanted to get another dub,” said Dajuan Harris, who was the starting point guard on that team.

Kansas’ Hunter Dickinson was the best player in the second game as he went for 27 points and 21 rebounds in the first 20-20 game in Champions Classic history. His teammate Kevin McCullar Jr. put his name in the record book by recording only the second triple-double in the event’s history, finishing with 12 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds.

“To come in this environment with everything that goes on with this, the bells and whistles, and they perform like they did, I couldn’t ask for much more,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari about his young bunch. “Other than making some free throws and a shot down the stretch.”

Tuesday night was fun. The Champions Classic serves as college basketball’s crown jewel of the non-conference schedule. Four of the most prestigious programs in the history of the sport, going at it early in the season, giving fans a preview of what they could see in March and April. Duke and Michigan State were a case study of two teams trying to figure out what they’ll become. Kentucky and Kansas gave us March Madness in November.

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