CHICAGO – Four programs with 18 national championships among them attended their annual blueblood get-together Tuesday night, and what did we learn?
Kentucky’s new-look backcourt is quite ready for prime time.
Duke’s not so much.
Once Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine is off the phone with old Spartan Magic Johnson, sharing stories of triple doubles, someone tell him he had the look of a man whose name could be in the ring for national player of the year. A senior as a viable contender. Imagine that.
That leaves Kansas, who obviously needs a better bullpen after letting a lead get away in the ninth inning.
All that and more came from the United Center, when Kentucky rolled over Duke 74-63, and Michigan State rallied past Kansas 79-73.
Start with Big Blue. Except Blue ain’t all that big this season.
Remember how Kentucky dominated with brute size last year? Turn the page. Three guards – two of them freshmen -- shredded Duke with speed and dribble penetration. Sophomore Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe combined for 46 points and 12 assists. Ulis did not have a turnover in 40 minutes.
``Last year we had 7-foot, 7-foot, 6-10,’’ John Calipari said. ``This year, we’re 5-9, 6-2, 6-5. We’re just a different team. We’re playing different.’’
Yeah, we noticed. Midway through the second half, Kentucky had outscored Duke 18-0 in fast break points and 48-24 in the paint, with lots of layups.
What did that prove? "Just that we’re going to be trouble in a fast-paced game like that,’’ said Ulis, the 5-9 portion of Calipari’s quote.
Mike Krzyzewski was impressed, anyway, especially with Ulis. ``He’s in complete control of his team. Competing against him, I admire his presence throughout the game, and his face throughout the game. It was the face of a winner, and a really good leader.
``God was good to him. The gene pool was good. They didn’t give him height, but they gave him probably a heart that’s five times bigger than most people.’’
Calipari had good words to go around.
For Ulis. ``You see his leadership on the court. You just feel it. When he’s off the court, we’re not the same.’’
For freshman Briscoe. ``He’s 17 years old. He has no idea he’s not supposed to be in that game.’’
For touted freshman Skal Labissiere, who had a tough night with only seven points and 13 minutes because of foul trouble. ``Skal just needs time on the court. He’s going to be fine. Skal’s one of the best players in the country. He wasn’t tonight, but he is.’’
But Calipari didn’t like to see so many balls yanked away from his team. ``The grit we needed to play with on defense was not quite there.’’ And the scrappiness in his team wasn’t entirely to his liking.
``If we learn to fight every possession, play the guy before he catches it, be alert defensively, stay down in the stance and really play off of one another, we’re going to be really good,’’ he said. ``If we don’t, we’re going to be an average team.’’
Average? Not with those guards.
Now, for Duke.
Ouch. The Blue Devils led for five seconds, and trailed by as many as 16. So many champions are gone, and Tuesday looked it.
``We weren’t who we should be tonight from the start,’’ Krzyzewski said. ``In some respects, the game was a little bit bigger for our guys than they anticipated.’’
He mourned Kentucky’s 17 points off turnovers and cringed at the sloppiness late in the first half, which he called ``ridiculously bad. We kept giving gifts, and they were well received.’’
He mentioned the 3-for-22 shooting from Grayson Allen, Brandon Ingram and Luke Kennard and said, ``We’re not going to win if our perimeter plays like that, against really good teams.’’
Allen was last year’s surprise hero in the Final Four, and just torched Siena and Bryant for 26 and 28 points over the weekend. But this wasn’t Siena and Bryant. He went 2-for-11 and had four turnovers. Last year, he was the Blue Devil nobody saw coming. Now he’s one of the targets. Life is bound to be harder.
``I’ve got to take that challenge,’’ he said.
``None of our guys were the prime time players last year,’’ Krzyzewski said. ``When you’re put in the position where you’re the man . . . it’s different. You have to learn to do that. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that.’’
How about the Michigan State Valentines?
After 29, points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, and a parade of big plays at crunch time, Valentine had shown Kansas coach Bill Self the same thing he had shown the rest of us.
``I’ve always thought he was a good player,’’ Self said. ``Tonight, I think he proved to everybody he’s an exceptional player.’’
He is only the fourth Spartan to ever have a triple double, and only the second man to do it against Kansas. The other was Magic Johnson, who was on the phone to Valentine moments after the game.
``I try to get assists and rebounds,’’ Valentine said. ``The points come after.’’
Another line in Valentine’s box score impressed coach Tom Izzo more. One turnover in 38 minutes. Once upon a time, Valentine was a mistake waiting to happen. ``I made the comment a couple of years ago,’’ Izzo said, ``instead of being Magic, sometimes he’s tragic.’’
But Izzo’s shiny record at Michigan State has been largely built with seniors who weathered early stormy years and developed into reliable, big-time Spartans. ``Coach Izzo is always challenging me. I don’t like it sometimes,’’ Valentine said. ``I want to quit at times (`Me too,’ Izzo chimed in from the back of the press conference). But he stays in our ears and he keeps pushing us.’’
And now, Michigan State might have another Mateen Cleaves or Draymond Green. Looked that way Tuesday, anyway.
``There’s a million things he’s not good enough at,’’ Izzo said of Valentine. ``But winning is something he’s good enough at. Work ethic is something he’s good enough at. And basketball IQ is something he’s good enough at.
``Thank God he’s mine.’’
A team with this many veterans shouldn’t be blowing 11-point leads in the last 10 minutes, but the Jayhawks could not hold back Michigan State, and Valentine most of all. Though the 3-point looks they gave to other Spartans were also costly.
``The hard lesson to learn,’’ Self said, ``is that some points – it’s like tennis, I use this analogy all the time – there are some points in tennis that are more important to win than other points, like if you have the chance to break service.
``Tonight when you have to get stops, you’ve got to hunker down and do that. We made way too many mistakes. They shot two of those 3’s off the bounce, because of a bad (defensive) closeout. That should never happen. I think we can tighten up some of that stuff.’’
Yes, this is at best just an early snapshot. ``I think both of us are going to get a lot better,’’ Izzo said of Michigan State and Kansas. ``We’re not a finished product, and neither are they.’’
No, you can’t make too much of it. ``This is one game,’’ Calipari said. ``If we lose to (next opponent) Wright State, the people of Kentucky will think I should be fired.’’
Yes, it’s assumed flaws will be shown. ``We have a lot of improvement ahead of us,’’ Krzyzewski said. ``And we just have to accept that and go on.’’
No, no reason to let one night be alarming. ``To be honest, I’m not too worried about our team right now,’’ Kansas’ Wayne Selden Jr. said. ``Everything’s correctable that we messed up.’’
The record will show that three of these four teams ended up in the Final Four last April, with Kansas the lone no-show. They all left the United Center Tuesday with expectations intact, but no doubt which team won the evening on style points. The reloaded powerhouse in blue.
``I’m not surprised. Kentucky does that every year,’’ Duke’s Allen said. ``You can’t be surprised by that.’’