As I had to explain to more than one local writer, the State Farm Champions Classic doubleheader that took place Tuesday night at the United Center is the unofficial start of the men’s college basketball season.
“But everybody has played games already,” one of them said, half flummoxed, half uninterested.
“That’s stupid,” said another, showing off his vocabulary.
Look, I don’t make the rules. But for 13 years running, Duke, Michigan State, Kansas and Kentucky have gathered very near the start of the season for a pair of big-time games that maybe, hopefully, will grab the attention of football-crazed sports fans for, like, four or five hours, and this is when the ball gets rolling — again, unofficially. So what if the Spartans, for example, came here having already played a couple of no-names in James Madison and Southern Indiana? Oh, wait, James Madison actually won that game up in East Lansing. Wild!
It’s no wonder MSU slipped from No. 4 in the preseason Top 25 to No. 18 in the latest poll. Duke also fell, from No. 2 to No. 9 after a loss at home to Arizona.
This time — the fourth time the Champions Classic has gone down in Chicago — the No. 9 Blue Devils and No. 18 Spartans squared off, with Jon Scheyer’s squad handing Tom Izzo’s a 74-65 defeat. In the second game, the No. 1 Jayhawks fought back in the second half to beat the No. 17 Wildcats 89-84.
Kansas-Kentucky was the far better game. Every now and then, an early-season clash of heavy hitters checks all the boxes going in and then checks about 100 more after the opening tip. This was one of those pre-Thanksgiving delights.
Jayhawks 7-footer Hunter Dickinson, the transfer from Michigan, is an animal. KU will live through the big lefty, who had 27 points and 21 rebounds, but make no mistake — this is a complete team deserving of its ranking. DaJuan Harris Jr., Kevin McCullers and K.J. Adams combined for 51 points and 20 assists. That’s a team making beautiful music together.
• Look at Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves going off and getting his.
Reeves, the former Simeon star, played his first few seasons of college ball at Illinois State before diving into the deep end in Lexington. From scoring 7.2 points per game as a freshman with the Redbirds to pouring in 24 points against Kansas as a fifth-year senior in the best game of the early college season? Sweet.
• Izzo didn’t like it one bit when a reporter asked him why he’s 3-14 against Duke, with all but one of those losses coming against Mike Kryzewski. You probably wouldn’t like it, either, if you had a big, blue foot imprinted on your backside.
“I’m trying to think here,” he said after a dramatic exhale and long pause. “Probably because” — sarcasm alert — “their players have played better and their coaches have coached better?”
• The Spartans will get it going even if it takes a while. They’re always a bit of a misfit for this event, with Duke, Kentucky and Kansas loaded with bigger-name recruits and more jaw-dropping athletes. Sparty just plugs away, one wrestling match at a time. By the time March rolls around, nobody will want a piece of MSU.
• People should retire the narrative that Scheyer, in his second season, has to live up to Coach K performance standards. Guess what? Maybe he can exceed them. Duke hasn’t won a national championship since 2015, you know, and has only three of them — fewer than you might think — over the last 30-plus years.
• Illinois’ offense broke down over the final 11 minutes of a 71-64 loss to No. 4 Marquette, kind of a familiar sight. The Illini didn’t have enough pure shooting last season, either, and they definitely didn’t have a point guard to run the show smoothly. That still might be the case.
Also, veteran forward Coleman Hawkins just can’t give the Illini the same number of turnovers (five) as points scored. That’s just unacceptable by this point in his career.
• A tip of the beer helmet to UIC for its 76-67 win at Loyola on Monday. Let’s hear it for the Flames. But, man, what has happened to the Ramblers?
AP Top 25
1. Kansas, 2. Purdue, 3. Arizona, 4. Marquette, 5. UConn, 6. Houston, 7. Tennessee, 8. Creighton, 9. Duke, 10. Florida Atlantic, 11. Gonzaga, 12. Miami, 13. Texas A&M, 14. Arkansas, 15. Baylor, 16. USC, 17. Kentucky, 18. Michigan State, 19. Texas, 20. North Carolina, 21. Villanova, 22. Alabama, 23. Illinois, 24. James Madison, 25. Colorado.
(Click here to see the poll in more complete list form.)
1. Kansas, 2. Purdue, 3. Arizona, 4. Marquette, 5. UConn, 6. Tennessee, 7. Creighton, 8. Houston, 9. Baylor, 10. Duke, 11. Florida Atlantic, 12. Texas A&M, 13. Villanova, 14. Arkansas, 15. Gonzaga, 16. Miami, 17. Kentucky, 18. Texas, 19. North Carolina, 20. USC, 21. Illinois, 22. Alabama, 23. Colorado, 24. Auburn, 25. Michigan State.
(Click here and then on “all voters” to see each voter’s individual ballot.)