The 2023 Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago had all the pageantry of a major moment for men’s college basketball. Magic Johnson smiled when the cameras showed him on the giant screen during Duke’s 74-65 win over Michigan State. Rich Paul, the mega agent for LeBron James and other NBA All-Stars, sat courtside. There were numerous NBA scouts and executives in the building, including Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri.
The first half of Duke-MSU, however, featured sluggish basketball, with the teams tied 9-9 with 11:45 to play. The action picked up in the second half, when the Spartans stormed back and the energy rose. And the pace continued into the second game with Adou Thiero’s dunks for Kentucky. But it was Kevin McCullar Jr.’s triple-double and Hunter Dickinson’s remarkable 27 points and 21 rebounds that helped bring Kansas the 89-84 victory.
The pomp and circumstance, however, were second to the stakes.
Each of the four teams entered Tuesday’s action seeking a major win to add to its résumé. But the Spartans have more questions than answers. Duke might have found a young star in Caleb Foster. Kentucky hasn’t been this entertaining in years. And Kansas might need more time to jell, but the pieces for a national title run are there, clearly.
ESPN’s panel of experts — Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway — take a look at both matchups in detail.
Kyle Filipowski spins to the rack for a Duke basket
Kyle Filipowski puts his defender in a blender as he spins to the rack for a bucket.
What ultimately decided Duke’s win over Michigan State?
The shots didn’t fall. Duke’s box score is filled with challenges. Due to foul trouble, Kyle Filipowski played just 13 minutes in the first half. The Blue Devils finished 6-for-22 from the 3-point line. They committed 13 turnovers. Still, they left the United Center with a nine-point win.
Michigan State’s ongoing shooting woes just wouldn’t allow it to close the gap. Although the Spartans were 4-for-6 from beyond the arc in the second half, they started 2-for-13, not all of them contested. MSU had open looks that wouldn’t drop. Tom Izzo’s squad is now 8-for-50 from the 3-point line through three games, the Spartans’ worst mark over the past 25 years, per ESPN Stats & Information data. Duke didn’t play a great game. Yes, Caleb Foster hit big shots down the stretch. But the Spartans’ ongoing drought led to a second loss. — Myron Medcalf
What was different for Duke in this game after its loss at home to Arizona and why is it promising for the Blue Devils?
From a personnel standpoint, it was Caleb Foster. The highly touted freshman generated plenty of buzz in the preseason, with multiple NBA scouts telling ESPN he looked like the best of the Blue Devils’ incoming recruiting class. But against Arizona last week, Foster played just 13 minutes and didn’t score a single point. Against Michigan State, he looked like Duke’s best player not named Kyle Filipowski. Foster finished with 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting — including four made 3s. He consistently hit big shots in the second half, stopping Michigan State’s runs or extending Duke’s lead.
Defenses will always tilt toward Filipowski, and eventually Tyrese Proctor will return to his late-season form of 2022-23. If Foster can continue to make open shots and give coach Jon Scheyer a consistent perimeter option, that’s going to be big for a Duke offense that struggled to create offense against Arizona. — Jeff Borzello
Is there more to Michigan State’s 1-2 record than the very cold shooting we’ve been constantly talking about?
The cold shooting started to warm up a bit in the second half on Tuesday, but MSU is still shooting just 16% on its 3s for the season. There are, however, other worrisome trends for Tom Izzo to address, starting with the fact that in these two losses, James Madison and the Blue Devils shot a total of 58 free throws in 85 minutes. Duke also shot even worse on its 3s (6-for-22) than the Spartans (6-of-19), but with Kyle Filipowski and Tyrese Proctor leading the way, the Blue Devils made their 2s.
Even with “normal” 3-point shooting, this is not yet a top-five team, as it was predicted to be in the preseason. It is also not yet Thanksgiving. Tyson Walker is one fierce competitor, Coen Carr looks fantastic and it would be beyond foolish to write off this group after just three games. — John Gasaway
Kevin McCullar Jr. helps Kansas to a win with a triple-double
Kevin McCullar finishes with 12 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds to help Kansas rally back against Kentucky.
What lessons do the Jayhawks take away from their win against Kentucky?
I think the lesson here is the value of poise. The Jayhawks were down 14 with 16:21 to play in the second half against a Kentucky squad stacked with NBA prospects. They couldn’t stop Rob Dillingham. Reed Sheppard was hot. Adou Thiero kept dunking on everybody. But Kansas kept fighting and found a rhythm.
K.J. Adams Jr. got big buckets. Dajuan Harris Jr. made plays. Kevin McCullar Jr. added critical stops on defense — including on Sheppard’s late 3-pointer that missed the rim — even when McCullar’s own shots weren’t falling (3-for-11 overall). And Hunter Dickinson lived up to the hype with a colossal effort (27 points, 21 rebounds).
You won’t see many teams put Kansas on the ropes. They bounced back, however, making 54% of their shots and 42% of their 3s in the second half, while Kentucky connected on just 29% of its shots after halftime.
In the future, the Jayhawks will face other tough matchups, but the resilience they showcased Tuesday night will help them in the future. — Medcalf
Adou Thiero hammers down the putback flush
Adou Thiero tails the fast break and throws down a powerful putback slam for Kentucky.
Even though the Wildcats lost, why should we still be excited about them this season?
For the first 25 minutes, they were a revelation. They were playing with incredible pace, spreading the floor with multiple shot-makers and forcing Kansas to defend in space. Rob Dillingham was making shots. Antonio Reeves was making shots. Adou Thiero was playing with energy. Kansas simply couldn’t keep up.
The Jayhawks did begin to assert their interior dominance and keep Kentucky out of transition in order to come back and eventually win, but the big takeaway is that John Calipari’s team went toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the country and nearly won. And this despite Justin Edwards and D.J. Wagner — the highest-ranked freshmen on the Wildcats and their highest-ranked NBA prospects — shooting a combined 1-for-18 and scoring five points.
One more thing to remember: Kentucky is still short-handed. Aaron Bradshaw, a top-10 recruit, and returning big man Ugonna Onyenso are out after offseason foot injuries, and highly touted Croatian center Zvonimir Ivisic hasn’t been cleared to play yet. Hunter Dickinson probably wouldn’t had gotten 27 and 21 if those three were able to suit up on Tuesday. I came out of this with plenty of optimism for Kentucky’s season. — Borzello
After watching Hunter Dickinson record 27 points and 21 rebounds, is it possible he was underrated even as a preseason first-team All-American?
Certainly it’s possible we’re about to see Dickinson post his best season yet, and that’s saying something. Yes, Kentucky was playing without its full roster and specifically without much in the way of size. Even so, Dickinson was outstanding. His 27 points included a 3 to end the first half, and he even added three steals to his stat line.
Coach Bill Self is making sure the ball is delivered to Dickinson where he can do the most damage, and it’s possible Kansas’ star will surpass anything he did at Michigan both in terms of scoring and rebounding. In particular, Dickinson looks like he’ll have the opportunity to do more on the offensive glass than ever before in his career, as evidenced by his six offensive boards against the Wildcats.
Dickinson is making all that best-transfer-in-the-history-of-the-portal talk look very accurate. Zach Edey would be well-advised to continue his dominant ways, because Dickinson is poised to give him some competition for national player of the year honors. — Gasaway