The 2020 Champions Classic was nothing like the nine editions that preceded it.
There were two games, but no classics. And there appeared to be few champions involved.
Michigan State, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky have made eight Final Four appearances and won two NCAA titles since they started this event at Madison Square Garden in November 2011. The Spartans were the only team that appeared to be headed in that direction at the end of Tuesday night — but, of course, there still is time for the other three to deal with the issues apparent on this night.
These were the biggest takeaways from the doubleheader:
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1. Veterans make freshman mistakes, too.
The Wildcats are heavily dependent on Wake Forest transfer center Olivier Sarr to provide a foundation for their offense and defense. Against Kansas, in a 65-62 defeat, that was a part-time job.
Sarr played only 14 minutes because of foul trouble, and at least two of his fouls were wasted. He earned one foul on a hopeless defensive rebounding mission — when he was blocked out by multiple Jayhawks but got frustrated and fouled early in the second half. His fourth foul occurred with 12:46 left, after Kentucky wing Brandon Boston rushed a shot and produced a long rebound that created a Kansas break.
Sarr must know how important he is. With Keion Brooks out injured, he is the one veteran frontcourt player for the Wildcats. He cannot spend more time on the bench than the floor. But as Kansas’ Christian Braun approached the rim for a fastbreak layup, Sarr chose to challenge the shot and fouled.
He sat for a long time after that.
2. Kentucky’s shooting is a real problem.
If the Kentucky offense had to play against the Kentucky defense, there might not be a basket scored.
Kentucky’s length can make for an impressive defensive outfit, once all the players begin paying attention to detail and understanding the consequences of any given lapse. But it has been a long time since anyone won an NCAA championship without making a fair number of 3s. UCLA hit just four over two games at the 1995 Final Four. That was 25 years ago. The game has changed a lot since then.
Reserve point guard Damon Mintz hit two 3s for the Wildcats in this game, both in the final seven minutes. The Wildcats ended up 3 of 21 from beyond the arc. Some of that is a dearth of shooting ability. A lot of it is a product of poor execution, with players such as Terrence Clarke and Cam’Ron Fletcher rushing into shots they might otherwise make.
And then there is freshman point Devin Askew, who rarely is shot-ready when the ball is returned to him and the opening is there to shoot. That’s how a team misses 18 threes.
3. Kansas needs more than size from its bigs.
Former McDonald’s All-American David McCormack struggled terribly against Kentucky’s length, going just 1 of 9 from the floor.
It would be unwise, though, to give up on someone with his ability — and impossible to win the biggest games while playing entirely with a five-guard look. That might be something that’s doable for a team with five superstar guards; Kansas has a few, but not enough.
McCormack is bothered by an injury and did show some promise in the season-opening loss to Gonzaga: He wound up with seven points and five rebounds in just 19 minutes of playing time. I still like his mobility, his ability to carve out a piece of space on one side of the block and jet to the other, if that’s what’s required to make the offense go.
Kentucky will bother plenty of opposing bigs. That McCormack eventually wound up struggling is an issue, but not a calamity.
4. Kansas’ no-big lineup won this game.
This was because Kentucky’s bigs didn’t properly deal with the perimeter players they were assigned to cover.
Perhaps watching the Jayhawks match Kentucky brick for brick over 35 minutes lured the Wildcats into thinking there was no jumpshooter on the court who was a threat to actually make one. But you still have to allow for the possibility.
With Jayhawks coach Bill Self removing bigs McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot and deploying no one taller than 6-8 freshman Jalen Wilson, Kentucky’s frontcourt players were left having to defend on the perimeter. Perhaps they were overly concerned about getting beat off the dribble, but both Isaiah Jackson and Sarr were burned for 3-point baskets that wound up being decisive in a tight game.
Jackson was burned on the first two, essentially daring Jackson to fire and barely even lifting his arms to challenge, let alone moving his feet. The first, with 5:30 left and Kentucky up by four, was hard to understand because there was so much time for him to execute a proper close-out. Wilson could have recited the Gettysburg Address as he pondered whether to shoot. Jackson never budged, so Wilson launched the shot and made it.
The second came on the very next possession, with the Wildcats now up three. Jackson stood 5 feet behind the 3-point line as Wilson caught the ball — which was a clear sign there was no reason to hesitate. Wilson rose to shoot, and Jackson could do nothing more than jump where he stood and hope to provide a minor distraction. He didn’t. The game was tied when the shot landed.
Jackson was not alone in struggling to deal with shooters.
After Sarr returned, the game was tied at 55 with 2:46 left. When he defended Ochai Agbaji, he became distracted by a move to the hoop by Kansas’ Marcus Garrett. Agbaji’s 3-pointer was unchallenged and gave Kansas the lead for good.
Kansas was 5 of 21 from 3-point range, but 3 of 4 in the final 5:30. Because the defense weakened.
“That was ugly,” Self told reporters after the game. “The key to having great seasons is when you win when you’re not as good.”
5. If Aaron Henry drops some shots, he’s going to be a star.
A junior wing who was a regular on Michigan State’s 2019 Final Four team and a starter for last season’s Big Ten co-champions, Henry appears to have learned well from such leaders as Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman.
In the second half against Duke, Henry was visible on the bench during one of his few breaks — he played 35 minutes — shouting instructions to a teammate to set a screen for the ballhandler. On the floor, he played with extraordinary energy and defended so well Duke’s starting wings wound up 0 for 12 from the floor.
Henry only shot 7 of 21, though, missing all three of his 3-pointers and 11 of his 18 2-point tries. He has to find a way to play on offense with great energy — but also some degree of patience.
6. Wendell Moore needs alternative ways to generate impact.
Moore, Duke’s 6-5 sophomore, now has produced one or zero baskets in five of his past nine games. He has made just 1 of 19 from 3-point range since Feb. 4.
It maybe didn’t matter as much last season, when Duke could rely on Vernon Carey, Cassius Stanley and Tre Jones for points. It matters now.
But the bigger deal is that Moore’s only other “contribution” against the Spartans was to commit three turnovers. Duke didn’t start anyone older than a sophomore against MSU. Moore is a veteran whether he realizes it, and he will need to play like one.