CHICAGO—The State Farm Champions Classic was born in 2011 with a simple premise: bring together four of the country’s most storied programs, which also happen to be modern-day powerhouses, for an early-season showcase. The classic, which includes Duke, Michigan State, Kansas and Kentucky every year, is regularly expected to feature at least one Final Four team. At least one of the four has eventually gone onto the Final Four in four of the first six years of the Champions Classic, with three—Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State—making it in 2015.
This season’s Champions Classic was no different, with all four teams ranked among the top seven in the country, including the No. 1 (Duke) and No. 2 (Michigan State) teams. But as No. 4 Kansas and No. 7 Kentucky proved in their disjointed, sloppy game in the nightcap at the United Center on Tuesday night, it’s November for every team in the country no matter the expectations.
“The first game was much more artistic,” Bill Self said of Duke’s 88-81 win over Michigan State, comparing that to his team’s 65-61 triumph against Kentucky
Kansas got a significant win over non-conference foe. That was the big story of the night, and it could be again in March when both of these teams are presenting their tournament resumes to the selection committee. The secondary takeaway, however, which was present all night, was that these two teams are both works in progress, despite their championship aspirations.
Right off the top, it must be said that Kansas was playing without Billy Preston. The team announced about an hour before scheduled tipoff that Preston had been in a one-car accident over the weekend and that, according to a statement attributed to Bill Self, “the administration determined that we needed a clearer financial picture specific to the vehicle,” forcing the freshman forward to the bench for the entire game. We’re not going to speculate about what “clearer financial picture” means, but it doesn’t sound great.
Back to the game at hand. Neither Kansas nor Kentucky looked like the well-oiled machines both are expected to be this season. The over/under for the game was 150.5 points, and KenPom pegged it as a 78-77 win for the Jayhawks. The teams came up well shy of both totals, combining for 126 points. Kentucky shot 41.8% from the floor and turned it over 18 times. They connected on just three of their 13 shots from behind the arc, with all of those makes coming from Kevin Knox.
Calipari may have been expecting this sort of game. He said that he didn’t pay much attention to the score for most of the first half.
“When you have young players, you have to play through,” Calipari said. “Don’t call a timeout, let them bail themselves out.”
Kansas, meanwhile, was in even worse shape. The Jayhawks shot 24-for-68 from the floor, translating to a 35.3% field goal percentage. They launched 28 threes, making just eight of them. Svi Mykhailiuk, who needs to be a threat from distance for Kansas to reach its full potential, made three of his 10 shots from three-point land. Devonte’ Graham, widely seen as the team’s best player, went 3-for-14 from the floor, including 1-for-6 from three.
The sluggish performance continued an early-season trend for the Wildcats. They looked sluggish in their season opener with Utah Valley before eventually pulling away for a 73-63 win. Then Vermont pushed them to the brink at Rupp Arena on Sunday, having a chance to send the game to overtime on its last possession of the game before ultimately falling, 73-69. We’ve seen this from Calipari’s freshmen-laden teams in recent years, and those squads have always put it together eventually. There’s little reason to expect this year’s version to be any different.
“I’m trying to get them to think less and play more,” Calipari said.
As for the Jayhawks, the ugly night from top to bottom can be spun as a positive. Playing without Preston, Self used just seven players, and just six for at least 10 minutes. His starters all played at least 32 minutes, with Graham leading the way at 39. They shot the ball poorly, but that’s not a huge surprise against a long, athletic Kentucky team that Calipari already has playing well on the defensive side of the ball. They managed to pull out a win against a strong Kentucky team with Graham, Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman combining to shoot 11-for-41. The Jayhawks racked up 18 offensive rebounds, leading to 20 second-chance points. After committing eight turnovers in the first half, they gave it away just three times in the second half. All things considered, that’s not a terrible night.
“If you can stand to watch it, it gives you confidence and makes you more aware of who you are,” Self said of playing a team like Kentucky this early in the season.
Kentucky’s positives will be a bit fewer and further between. They didn’t shoot it terribly from the floor, but 41.8% isn’t going to get it done against the best teams in the country. Outside of Knox, they had no threat from distance, and their offense stagnated far too often, especially with the level of talent they have on the floor at all times. Still, they played a great game defensively, and might have pulled out a win had they done a better job cleaning up their defensive glass.
Tuesday wasn’t the best night for either of these teams, but cleaner, prettier days are ahead. They may not have looked like the championship versions of themselves in Chicago, but they did prove how dangerous they can be if, and when, they get there.