Champions Classic takeaways: UK's Tyrese Maxey steals Opening Night with dominant debut

Tyrese Maxey #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts in the second half of their game against the Michigan State Spartans on Tuesday. (Getty)

For the first time in college basketball history, the top four teams in the preseason AP Top 25 were under one roof to start the season. Here are three quick takeaways from Tuesday night’s Champions Classic doubleheader. 

Michigan State began the season atop all the major polls. Duke was playing in its first post-Zion game. Kansas is trying to win Bill Self’s second championship with the specter of an NCAA probe hanging over the program.    

For once, Kentucky entered the Champions Classic with the least amount of preseason buzz, but the Wildcats won’t fly under the radar anymore. They’re the talk of college basketball again after establishing themselves as an early national title favorite with easily the most impressive performance of the night. 

Tyrese Maxey came off the bench Tuesday night to score 26 points and lift second-ranked Kentucky to a 69-62 victory over top-ranked Michigan State. Anytime the foul-plagued Spartans scratched back to within striking distance during the second half, Maxey had an answer ready to stymie their momentum. 

When Michigan State trimmed a 10-point halftime deficit to three early in the second half, Maxey responded with a 3-pointer from a few feet behind the arc. The heralded 6-foot-3 combo guard then tallied nine of Kentucky’s final 15 points, including an impossibly deep 3-pointer after the Spartans had closed to within two with just over a minute to play.

Maxey now has bragging rights over John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and all the other transcendent freshmen Kentucky has sent to the NBA. None of them piled up as many points as Maxey did in their collegiate debuts, let alone inside America’s most famous arena against the No. 1 team in the nation. 

That Maxey shined on a big stage Tuesday night was no surprise to anyone familiar with his high school exploits. 

Rivals.com’s No. 10 prospect in the 2019 class earned Texas Mr. Basketball honors earlier this year after averaging 22.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.7 steals per game for South Garland High School in Dallas. Some draft prognosticators project him as a top-10 pick next June because of his ability to create for himself off the dribble and to pull up from 30 feet. 

Maxey was the only Kentucky player to tally more than 11 points on Tuesday night, but the Wildcats didn’t need a second scorer to emerge. They instead relied on their defense, holding Michigan State to 39.3 percent shooting, forcing 16 turnovers and smothering the Spartans with their length.

It also helped that Michigan State was in constant foul trouble and went deeper into its bench in the first half than Tom Izzo intended. National player of the year favorite Cassius Winston kept the Spartans competitive with 21 points, but they did not hold a lead after the game’s opening two minutes.

There’s a tendency to overreact to what happens in the first game of the season and neglect that there are still dozens more left to play.

In 2014, we thought Kansas was trash after it was embarrassed by Kentucky. The Jayhawks rebounded to win 27 games and land a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. 

In 2018, we thought Duke was invincible after it hung 118 points on Kentucky. The Blue Devils ended up losing six games and failed to reach the Final Four.

Keep that in mind before you rush to crown Kentucky or label Michigan State overrated. The Wildcats are a deserving early season favorite, especially considering that such a freshman-laden team is bound to get better, but there’s a whole lot of basketball left to play until March. 

Duke guard Tre Jones (3) and guard Cassius Stanley (2) react after a basket during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Kansas on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Kansas gave away undercard as much as Duke won it

A 68-66 victory over Big 12 favorite Kansas will no doubt be a huge boost for Duke’s résumé come March, but anyone who watched the Champions Classic undercard knows that’s misleading. 

This felt like a game the Jayhawks fumbled away more than one that Duke rose up and seized. 

Kansas had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds despite playing with all the poise of a fourth-grader after binging on Pixy Stix. The Jayhawks committed a whopping 28 turnovers, 18 during a jittery first half. 

Some of Kansas’ miscues were a result of Duke’s defensive pressure. The Blue Devils did a nice job clogging driving lanes for Devon Dotson, doubling Udoka Azubuike in the post on the catch and forcing players to handle the ball who weren’t comfortable doing it.

But just as many of Kansas’ turnovers were unforced. The Jayhawks rushed passes, threw errant lobs, botched fast breaks, careened out of control into the teeth of the defense and absentmindedly allowed the shot clock to expire. If the game was turnover bingo, every square on the card would be full. 

The final two Kansas possessions of the game were a microcosm of everything that preceded them. 

With Kansas trailing by one and just over 30 seconds to play, David McCormick was slow to spot Azubuike open under the basket. That gave Duke forward Jack White time to rotate over, step in front of McCormick’s bounce pass and steal the ball, forcing the Jayhawks to foul to extend the game. 

Kansas had one final chance after two Tre Jones free throws, but the Jayhawks squandered that too. They never attempted a game-tying 3-pointer, nor did they get the ball into the hands of their best players, settling instead for an errant jumper by Marcus Garrett and rushed put-back attempts from Garrett and McCormick.  

The optimistic view for Kansas is that it nearly beat a fellow top-five team despite the turnovers, but the Jayhawks need to consider why their offense was so out of sync.   

Was it opening-night nerves? Was it Duke’s aggressive defense? Was it the absence of a second ball handler to aid Dotson? Or was it a symptom of playing two back-to-the-basket big men at once, a throwback tactic that congests the lane and makes it easier for a defense to shut down driving lanes? 

Most likely, it was a little bit of everything. On a night when Kansas entered as the more experienced, more battle-tested team, the Jayhawks didn’t show it.

Cassius Stanley could be exactly what Duke needs

With Tre Jones returning from last year’s 32-win juggernaut, Duke could feel comfortable that its point guard position was in good hands. The Blue Devils also didn’t have to worry much about their frontcourt with polished freshmen Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt joining veterans Jack White and Javin DeLaurier. 

The area of concern was at wing, which is why Cassius Stanley’s strong debut Tuesday night against Kansas was such an encouraging sign. 

Stanley was Duke’s best player during the second half as the Blue Devils erased a nine-point deficit and gritted out a 68-66 win. He finished with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including some of the game’s most important buckets. 

He fueled a 10-1 Duke surge early in the second half with a pair of transition dunks. He buried a no-hesitation 3-pointer a few minutes later when Kansas was threatening to pull away again. And he had a 3-point play that gave Duke the lead for good with less than three minutes left in the game. 

Will Stanley be Duke’s best player every night? Surely not. That’s asking a lot of Rivals.com’s No. 39 ranked player in the 2019 class. But Stanley showed he’s prepared to step into a big role right away, which is exactly what Duke needed to see. 

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