Champions Classic: John Calipari's Kentucky squad shows much-needed promise in loss to Kansas; Duke found a new star

Kentucky head coach John Calipari has a lot to prove this season, so going toe-to-toe with No. 1 Kansas on Tuesday at the Champions Classic in Chicago may be an important first step. (AP Photo Erin Hooley)

Four of men’s college basketball’s biggest brands were back under one roof Tuesday night for one of the sport’s signature early-season events. Here are three takeaways from the Champions Classic doubleheader:

1. Kentucky will be far better than its No. 17 ranking

One of Kentucky’s three ballyhooed freshmen missed 11 of 12 shots he attempted. Another shot 0-for-6 and tallied more turnovers than points. The third was one of the Wildcats’ three 7-footers who sat out due to injury or eligibility concerns.

This sounds like a recipe for a 20-point Kentucky loss, but what actually happened was far more encouraging than that.

In the first big test of the most pressure-packed season of John Calipari’s coaching career, Kentucky led top-ranked Kansas deep into the second half before the Wildcats’ youth and inexperience caught up to them. Dajuan Harris and Hunter Dickinson sparked an 11-1 surge over the game’s last four minutes to enable the Jayhawks to escape with an 89-84 victory.

Kentucky was in position to win because four-star freshmen guards Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard changed the game with their energy while outplaying heralded starters DJ Wagner and Justin Edwards. The speedy, streak-shooting Dillingham had 16 of his 18 points in the first half, including back-to-back-to-back brazen 3-pointers that propelled the Wildcats into the lead. Sheppard, the son of former Kentucky star Jeff Sheppard, added 13 points, impacting the game with his quick hands, his basketball IQ and his outside shooting.

Kentucky led by seven at halftime, by as many as 14 early in the second half and by six with less than four minutes to go. The Wildcats might have come away with more than a moral victory had Calipari not gone away from Dillingham and Sheppard for key stretches of the second half. Or had Dillingham, Sheppard and Antonio Reeves not forced a series of off-target 3-pointers in the final minutes.

Regardless, Kentucky’s strong performance under adverse circumstances is a step toward easing the pressure on Calipari. The Hal of Fame coach desperately needs a strong season to quiet mounting concern throughout Big Blue Nation that he is no longer the right man for college basketball’s most high-profile job.

Three years ago, Kentucky staggered through its worst season in almost a century. Two years ago, the Wildcats flopped spectacularly in the NCAA tournament against lightly regarded Saint Peter’s. Last year, Calipari’s program fell out of the Top 25 by late December and managed only a single postseason victory.

This year’s team flashed the potential to make a run at Kentucky’s first Final Four since 2015, but the way the Wildcats did it could create new headaches for their coach.

How will Calipari handle it if his backup backcourt remains more effective than his more highly touted starters? Could Dillingham or Sheppard play their way into bigger roles at the expense of Edwards or Wagner?

It’s a good problem for Calipari to have but also a delicate one.

2. Caleb Foster will soon force his way into Duke’s starting five (and maybe the 2024 NBA Draft)

Duke’s 74-65 victory over Michigan State will be remembered in Durham as the Caleb Foster game. The freshman combo guard produced a breakout performance off the bench to help the preseason No. 2 Blue Devils avoid a second early loss.

It wasn’t just that Foster scored 16 of team-high 18 points in the second half to help Duke thwart a series of Michigan State rallies. It was also that Foster went 4-for-5 from behind the arc to fix the floor-spacing issues that plagued the Blue Devils last Friday in their home loss to Arizona.

When Michigan State doubled Kyle Filipowski in the low post late in the second half, the Spartans gambled by leaving Foster free spotted up in the right corner. Foster made them pay, burying a catch-and-shoot 3 to extend Duke’s lead to nine with just over three minutes to go.

The next possession, Duke ran Tyrese Proctor-Filipowski top-of-the-key pick-and-roll with a similar result. When Proctor turned the corner, Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard cheated off Foster to help. Foster responded with another catch-and-shoot corner 3, a game clincher that pushed Duke’s lead to 12.

That Foster was the lone Duke freshman to score on Tuesday night was a bit of a surprise. The 6-foot-5 guard was among the biggest snubs when the 2023 McDonald’s All-American rosters were unveiled. He logged 13 scoreless minutes off the bench against Arizona when the Wildcats helped heavily in the paint and dared Duke to hit outside shots.

If Foster can consistently provide isolation and catch-and-shoot scoring, it won’t be long before he claims fellow freshman Jared McCain’s spot in Duke’s starting five. And it also might not be long before he starts showing up on 2024 mock drafts as a potential one-and-done too.

3. Tyson Walker needs more scoring help for Michigan State to reach its potential

Michigan State's Tyson Walker (2) had his hands full in a loss to Duke on Tuesday at the Champions Classic in Chicago. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

Michigan State’s Tyson Walker (2) had his hands full in a loss to Duke on Tuesday at the Champions Classic in Chicago. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) (Lance King via Getty Images)

Duke head coach Jon Scheyer’s defensive game plan against Michigan State wasn’t difficult to diagnose: He wasn’t going to let Tyson Walker beat him.

At first, that just meant siccing long-armed, quick-footed Tyrese Proctor on Walker in hopes that the heralded sophomore could keep Michigan State’s spark plug out of the lane. Then, when Walker used screens to free himself from Proctor and create mismatches, Duke responded by blitzing those ball screens and forcing the ball out of Walker’s hands.

Walker still had 22 points, 18 of which came in the second half as Michigan State launched a series of spirited rallies from a double-digit halftime deficit. And yet those baskets seldom came easily and anything else Michigan State tried looked even rougher.

A Michigan State team that entered Tuesday night 2-for-31 from behind the arc missed all but two of its 13 first-half attempts and finished a modest 31.6% for the game. The Spartans also got next to nothing offensively from the center position, where Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper struggled to pass out of the post or finish around the rim.

They didn’t score much in transition. They shot 18 fewer free throws than Duke.

For Michigan State to bounce back from early losses to James Madison and Duke and live up to its preseason No. 4 ranking, the Spartans need to ease the burden on Walker on the offensive end of the floor. Malik Hall took a step forward with 18 points on Tuesday. Hoggard looked more like a functional point guard. Jaden Akins won’t shoot this poorly forever. And Michigan State’s promising freshman class can produce more as they gain head coach Tom Izzo’s trust.

So don’t shovel dirt on the Spartans after three disappointing games. It just looks like a team that returned four starters and added a top-five freshman class will require more patience than anticipated.

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