CHICAGO — So where to begin with this Champions Classic — Hunter Dickinson’s trash-talking, or Tom Izzo texting with Mike Krzyzewski? The freshman Duke guard who went from 0 to 18 in four days, or the outside fusillade from the offense formerly known as the 2-points-at-a-time Kentucky Wildcats?
The most pertinent numbers from Tuesday night at the United Center were obvious.
Kansas 89, Kentucky 84, so the Jayhawks get to stay No. 1.
Duke 74, Michigan State 65, which leaves the Spartans 1-2 and Izzo detecting alarm in the air, at least in the post-game media interview room.
But there were a good many numbers that carried messages, given the wattage of the competition. “That,” Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr., declared, “was big boy basketball.” Here are some statistics that speak to where these four teams are after their annual blueblood convention, and where they might be going.
For Kansas . . .
27-21. As in 27 points and 21 rebounds for Dickinson. No Jayhawk this century had put together a 20-20 game against a ranked opponent. About those voices calling maybe him the biggest winning lottery ticket of all from the transfer portal . . . . well, here was exhibit A. “We need him to be a monster,” Harris said. “That’s why we got him.”
When Kentucky sagged in half the Commonwealth trying to stop Dickinson, leaving Harris plenty of free air space to shoot, he torched the Wildcats for 23 points, including back-to-back 3’s that tilted the night toward Kansas.
“I think they wanted me to beat them. They left me open and then I just had to step up and make the shot," Harris said.
Such is the dilemma opponents will have with Kansas, with Dickinson a handful in the middle and the usual high-level Jayhawks talent scattered around him. If Tuesday is any indication, Harris can’t be left open. Kansas offensive precision was on display again — 22 more assists, meaning 81 of the Jayhawks’ 105 baskets so far this season have come with the aid of a pass. So was their championship breeding, wiping out a 14-point deficit in the second half and squeezing the hope out of Kentucky in the last minutes.
Such a promising scenario is a big reason former Michigan Wolverine Dickinson chose Lawrence as his new zip code. “He said when I came here I was going to get the ball a lot. I think I did today. So he was right about that,” Dickinson said of coach Bill Self. He also said, "You’re going to play with some great players and have a chance to win a national championship." We clearly have a good team, so I think he’s been truthful so far.
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“I just tried to fit in with my big personality.”
About that personality. Dickinson is a known chatter on the court and does things that quickly get him hated by opposing fan sections. “He was talking a decent bit of smack, but it’s part of the game so it’s all love.” Kentucky’s Adou Thiero was saying.
“Let’s call it like it is, he catches some crap. Sometimes with good reason and many times with not. One thing he does, he doesn’t run from it, ever. So I think guys like that give teams confidence,” Coach Self said.
Right here and right now you can already imagine a dream Final Four match for next April. Kansas vs. Purdue, Dickinson vs. Zach Eddy. It could be the fiercest collision of behemoths since the T-Rex went against the Gigantosaurus in Jurassic Park.
For Kentucky . . .
38. That’s how many 3-point attempts Kentucky put up against Kansas, five more than a John Calipari Wildcat team had ever launched. A lot of them went in early (9 of the first 20) but not so much late (3 of the last 18). “We got to get better at finishing,” Calipari said. “But a young team learns that.”
The average age on the Kentucky team is 20 which, according to one report, makes the Wildcats the seventh youngest team in the land. They’re quick and they hustle and apparently don't mind taking their cracks at the rim from 22 feet away.
Tenderfoots are a little inconsistent. So here were two big freshman names in Calipari’s latest blue-chip wave — Justin Edwards and D.J. Wagner — going 1-for-18 against Kansas. But the Wildcats still had a win in front of them until they missed their last seven shots. Two other kids newcomers stepped forward off the bench. Rob Dillingham had 16 points in the first half and he and Reed Sheppard were a combined 7-for-9 from behind the arc for the game. All seems well in Calipari's Lexington when freshmen are putting up numbers.
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Kentucky woke up Thursday morning 62nd in the country in 3-pointers. Three games are not a large sample size, but still. Something is different. In the past six seasons, the Wildcats have finished 287th, 290th, 255th, 336th, 323rd and 340th in the country in making 3s.
Also, despite the intense nature of the night, Calipari’s kids had but eight turnovers. That gives them only 17 for the season, which suggests an early growth of poise. “To come into an environment with everything that goes with this, the bells and whistles, and they perform as they did, I couldn’t ask for much more. Other than make some free throws and a shot down the stretch and win," Calipari said.
For Duke . . .
Zero. That’s how many points Caleb Foster scored for the Blue Devils in the Arizona loss, and for that matter, it’s how many shots he took in 13 minutes on the court. A freshman perhaps rickety in his first true big game. Any wobbles were gone four days later, as he blitzed Michigan State for 18 points, 16 in the second half.
“There’s going to be moments where you get knocked back, but the program that I know Duke to be, it’s all about how you respond,” coach Jon Scheyer said. “Every high school player in the country should follow what he’s done the last two games because it’s what it’s all about, the attitude, the mindset, the work. He’s crushed it.”
“I feel like I worked hard for this moment. It’s a moment I’ve dreamed of,” Foster said.
Duke is experienced, but only sort of. Led by Foster, 59 of the Blue Devils’ 75 points Tuesday were scored by freshmen or sophomores.
Another key feat was outrebounding Michigan State. That could signal a growing physical presence for Duke, and the memory is fresh of the Blue Devils getting absolutely manhandled by Tennessee last March in the NCAA tournament.
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So Duke has lost to Arizona and beaten Michigan State; for the first time in 24 years, the Blue Devils have played two ranked opponents in the first three games. But for a coach trying to get a quick read on how his collection will mesh, nights such as Tuesday are valuable.
“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," Calipari said.
For Michigan State . . .
8-for-50. That’s Michigan State’s 3-point shooting through the first three games. And to think, Tuesday was an improvement. The Spartans were 2-for-31 after the first two games. They’re 1-2 with a loss to James Madison to go with Tuesday, and until they start shooting better, there will be struggles.
Now might be the time to mention Michigan State was third in the nation last season in 3-point percentage. Some of the main faces in that number are gone but Izzo is still sure he has a gang that can shoot straight because he watches them do it in practice.
“Eventually when you have wide open, wide open, wide open 3’s. they got to go in and they didn’t. I’m not going to sit here and cry about it. We did a lot of good things tonight. We just didn’t make shots," Izzo said.
“I think we got a damn good team, I really do. We haven’t played very good. We’re going to play good.”
At the moment, Tyson Walker urgently needs help on the offensive end. He is shooting 54 percent, the rest of the Spartans 36.5. He has 27 of Michigan State’s 77 field goals for the season.
The James Madison loss has put a harsher light on the 1-2 record and Izzo seemed a tad nettled by the doomsday questions he was getting Tuesday night. ”The world hasn’t ended. We made some progress today at some things,” he said.
He’s big on accountability so one comment in the post-game locker room heartened him. It came from guard A.J. Hoggard who had eight assists against Duke but also missed seven of eight shots, which makes him 5-for-26 for the season. “I like the fact when we walked in the locker room and the first thing A.J. says is, `If I don’t play better you should bench me, this is ridiculous.’ You know what? Those are positive signs,” Izzo said.
There needs to be more, Michigan State plays Butler on Friday and the Bulldogs have won their first three games by 39, 35 and 34 points. Arizona is coming up soon, too.
“We got to get better,” Izzo said, “and get better quickly.”
And finally, about Izzo’s record against Duke. It’s 3-14. Unfathomable, given how good Michigan State has been. Nearly all that was against Krzyzewski, with Tuesday his first crack at Scheyer, who was 11 years old when Izzo coached his first Final Four team in East Lansing.
“I have no idea why,” Scheyer said of that gap. “I’m not about to take credit for all the games that Coach K won.”
The topic was brought to Izzo in his press session. “They beat us because they have been better and they beat us because they’re better coached. I got no problem saying that," he said. But he also mentioned that 17 meetings with a non-conference team show he has not been ducking the Blue Devils.
“I don’t have a good answer but I’m playing ‘em. And guess what? After I leave this frickin’ place I’m going to play them again," Izzo said.
Also, he has actually won two of the previous four. “That’s probably a better record than most people have against Duke.”
Krzyzewski had texted Izzo to tell him he would miss going against Tuesday night, as they have so often. “He said something about me being a favorite and a good guy,” Izzo said. “I said hell yeah, anybody that I beat as much as you beat me would be my favorite, too.”’
Oh, the fun these four teams have together. They’ll reconvene next year in Atlanta. Of course, they wouldn’t mind doing it in April in Arizona.