CHICAGO -- They came, they played, and the lower-ranked teams in each game won. But then, so did college basketball at large. Then they went their separate ways – four heavyweights who wouldn’t mind seeing one another again in about four months.
So what could be gleaned by one night in United Center, after Michigan State held off Kentucky 78-74, and Kansas whisked past Duke 94-83?
“I think there’s probably 15 other schools that are probably sick of thinking this is a preview of the Final Four,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “The great thing about it is, it matters, but in the big scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. We want to be playing our best ball in February and March. The teams that you saw [Wednesday] won’t be the teams you see later on, with any of the four teams.”
Oh yes, things will change, hopefully for the smoother. Still, Tuesday was instructive, not to mention entertaining, and what more could you ask for Nov. 12? When it was over...
• The basketball-watching nation understood what the fuss is about with these freshman. OK. Kentucky’s Julius Randle made too many turnovers, and Andrew Wiggins struggled with early foul trouble and Jabari Parker grew weary at the end, with his rookie fuel tank.
But still. Wiggins dazzled not only with his 22 points, including some late vital shots, but also his competitiveness. He had lobbied Self before the game to let him guard Parker, but Self resisted, fearing foul trouble. That changed at crunch time.
“About midway through the second half, or about the 13-minute mark, I didn’t put him on Jabari, he just went to guard him. I think he got a piece of his shot that possession,” Self said. “I said, well, he’s probably right. I should have been listening to him the whole time.”
Meanwhile, Parker had 19 points by halftime and 27 for the game, which was extraordinary work with so much expected from him in his return to his hometown.
“Imagine the emotion you use,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He wasn’t just worn out because of the way the game was played, I think he was emotioned-out. He was terrific, and that’s how you grow.”
Randle went for 27 points and 13 rebounds and was the driving force in a stirring rally against Michigan State.
“What I love about him, he gritted his teeth, he was ornery and nasty, and he wanted to put them on his shoulders,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “For a freshman, that speaks volumes.
“You could hear him talking, you could see it in his face, you could see his body language. Tough kid. Love him.”
Final conclusion: They don’t call them phenoms for nothing.
• Kentucky was not the No. 1 team anymore. But check back in January. By then, the Wildcats will presumably be more cohesive on transition defense, and make more free throws and Randle will have learned – he just spent two hours going against Izzo Defense 101 -- that if you just hold the ball, quick-handed thieves on the other team will pick your pocket.
Randle committed more turnovers by himself (8) than Michigan State did as a team (7), leaving John Calipari to mourn.
“Julius had eight turnovers for one reason," Calipari said. "He held the ball. Then you’re trying to go against five guys. You can’t play basketball that way.”
Then there were the Wildcats’ 16 missed free throws, which had Calipari yearning for the night that he will be in his office at 10:30 p.m. and his troops wander in from their living quarters, which are just across the street.
“I hope they take the 15 steps across the street to go to the practice facility and I see guys shooting on their own. That’s my hope.”
Kentucky will only get better, and that’s scary.
“We don’t have enough pride in our defense right now, but that’s natural,” Calipari said. “Our team, we’re going to be fine. I’ve got four months to get this right.”
• It was clear that the new world of tighter fouls is going to be a work in progress for even the top teams.
Self complained of no flow or rhythm in the Duke-Kansas game with its 53 fouls. “I’ll be honest, I don’t like it,” he said. “It takes away all aggressiveness defensively.”
Michigan State ended the game with four players nursing four fouls, and star Adreian Payne limited to 25 minutes.
“We’re going to have to double the post a little bit more. You might see a little bit more zone,” Izzo said. “We’re going to have to adjust.”
• Michigan State was likely headed for No. 1, but does that mean anything?
“No,” said guard Keith Appling. “We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season, not the beginning.”
It was a night of value to all four teams.
Krzyzewski mentioned how his team wore down from the emotional grind. “That’s what you have to learn from a game like this,” he said. “In winning games, you have to have waves of emotion.”
Calipari is sure his star freshman now better understands the urgency of doing something – anything – when he has the basketball. Self has the film to prove his Jayhawks need to defend the ball better. Wiggins can’t guard everybody.
And Izzo, aghast at Kentucky’s 44-32 dominance in rebounding figures, will be inserting his famous football drills into practice to toughen some of the big fellas. “Good time to bring the pads back out,” he said.
Nor does he mind if his team ends up in the hunted spot at No. 1.
“We have to learn how to handle that kind of thing,” he said. “There’s going to be a little added pressure, a little more. But that’s the fun.
“We’ll see what we can do with the bullseye on our back.”
Quite a red carpet night, and what it did best was plug the next four months or so. “They’re going to get a lot better,” Izzo said of Kentucky. “But don’t think we’re not going to get a lot better, too.” The season, christened by the freshman and the famed, is now truly in bloom.