Early season Classic
Four of top five college hoops teams match up Tuesday night
If only this were April, what a magical Final Four it would be. Not bad for November, either.
First, Kentucky vs. Michigan State at Chicago’s United Center in the State Farm Champions Classic on Tuesday night. Then, Duke vs. Kansas. The Blue Blood Four. As hors ‘d’oeuvres go for the season, this is caviar.
How glowing the marquee? When Kentucky meets Michigan State, it’ll be the earliest matchup in history between the No. 1 and No 2 ranked teams. And some consider that the undercard.
Then comes Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins vs. Duke’s Jabari Parker. Talk about your freshman orientation.
“I don’t know where else you can go and you can have four of the top five teams in the country all playing the second game of the season, together,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I know our players are juiced about it.”
Put this quartet together and here’s what you have:
• Seventeen national champions, and 52 trips to the Final Four.
• At the close of business Sunday, 7,770 college basketball victories.
• The Nos. 4, 5, 8 and 13 winningest active coaches in Division I. Also known as Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Self and Tom Izzo.
• Many of the most important faces in this year’s renowned freshman class.
• And the Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 ranked teams in the Associated Press poll.
It’s awfully early to have this much ado surrounding one night. But as Krzyzewski noted, “I think it’s amazing preparation for the postseason. On Nov. 12th.”
Nothing will be decided, but much will be suggested. The season’s early pecking order could be rearranged, or not.
“This is the kind of what you dream of when you have a job like this,” Izzo said. “To play the best and see where you are.”
Said Calipari, “We win or we learn. That’s what this game will be.”
There will be so many first impressions made from Tuesday night, maybe it should be on the Discovery Channel. Take Kentucky. This will begin to tell us if the new wave is as mighty as the Commonwealth hopes -- and everyone else fears.
Calipari has openly fretted about his young team being thrown into the deep end so quickly. “When I said it’s not fair for a team like ours to try to play an event like that, it’s true,” he said. “We’ve got all freshmen and sophomores. You don’t play in that kind of event two games in.”
But does a SVU load of McDonald’s All-Americans need much of a breaking-in period? “They look like an NBA team,” Izzo said of the Wildcats.
Kentucky’s freshmen are averaging 74 points after two games, led by Julius Randle’s 22.5 points and 15 rebounds. Gee, they don’t sound so tender-footed.
“Coach doesn’t think we are ready,” Andrew Harrison said. “But we are just going to play hard and see who has it in them and who doesn’t.”
Indeed, Calipari’s players see this as an opportunity, not a premature burden.
Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein sounded like an old hand -- which sophomores are at Kentucky -- when he said , “You have guys that want to go at you because of who you are and how much hype you get. You’ve got to prove that the hype is real, and that it’s not just hype.
“It tests you as a player.”
That goes for the second game, too, with the Wiggins-Parker matchup promoted as Frazier vs. Ali with sneakers. “There are no individual matchups,’’ Parker said. “[Just] Duke vs. Kansas.”
Such words are tonic for Krzyzewski, no doubt, but he understands the noise around Parker, who is not only facing Wiggins, but going back home to Chicago to do it. For that matter, so is Krzyzewski, who noted that the only city in the world with more Polish descendants than Chicago is Warsaw. “Think of the ticket requests I have,” he said.
Of the four teams’ prelims for Tuesday night, Duke was the most impressive, blowing away Davidson 111-77 with 70 percent shooting. Parker had 22 points and so did transfer Rodney Hood. A new day officially has arrived in Durham.
New days seem to always be arriving at Kansas, where Wiggins is only the most heralded of all the fresh faces. “We’re going to be nervous,” Self said of Tuesday night. “We should be nervous. Think about it, an 18-year-old kid, first time in this venue.”
Like his three colleagues, Self will at least get a good feel for how progress is going. “Right now,” he said, “who knows what teams are?”
Nobody. Tuesday night won’t provide any sure answers, either. But it ought to be fun for five hours.