Champions Classic: Just another game? America’s best coaches will tell you it’s anything but
You know it’s a heavyweight doubleheader, when Kansas vs. Kentucky is the undercard.
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Actually, the main event of the Champions Classic comes in the first game Tuesday night. Duke vs. Michigan State. More? Mike Krzyzewski vs. Tom Izzo. More? No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Associated Press poll – for only the seventh time this century.
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“It’s not just another game. I don’t think it’s another game for them, either,” Izzo said.
“It should be a hell of a night,” Krzyzewski mentioned.
There’s Duke, starting four freshmen for the first time in 35 years, putting up 97 and 99 in its first two games, with double-doubles each night from Marvin Bagley III. No freshman had ever done that his first two games as a Blue Devil.
Krzyzewski’s advice to all his newcomers about Tuesday night?
“Not to let the moment defeat them, let the moment excite them.”
There’s Michigan State, with Miles Bridges opening his Player of the Year campaign with a double-double in a 98-66 rout of North Florida, and the Spartans scoring 60 points in the paint. Their high all last season was 42.
There’s 70-year-old Krzyzewski, who just won his 1,000th game at Duke.
And 62-year-old Izzo – “The guy coaching them, he’s older, but not as old as me,” Krzyzewski noted – who doesn’t need to be reminded of one ugly number on his otherwise shining record. He’s 1-10 against Mike Krzyzewski.
“Everybody knows that,” he said. “At least I do. Every single day I do.”
There’s the other game, too, and it’s awfully good.
In the season opener, Kentucky started five freshmen for the first time since the 2014 national championship game and had to hustle from 12 points down to beat Utah Valley 73-63. Two nights later, the green Big Blue huffed and puffed past Vermont 73-69.
“There’s just so much we have to do,” John Calipari said, “and part of this early is going to be about survival.”
He also mentioned Sunday that "you cannot play Popcorn State and learn anything." Well, they're not playing Popcorn State Tuesday night.
Kansas, replacing three of its top four scorers, did not miss a shot the first seven minutes of the season and blew past Tennessee State 92-56, with Devonte’ Graham contributing 10 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists and three steals.
“We’ve got to play with more of a tougher mindset,” Bill Self said of the Kentucky assignment.
So this annual November convention of bluebloods – with 8,234 all-time victories and 18 national titles among them -- is ready for its seventh edition. In three of the six seasons, the Champions Classic has sent at least one team to the Final Four – though none the past two years. You want gravitas? All four coaches are in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s one of the greatest nights of college basketball with those four teams playing. I’m damn proud that we’re one of the four that have done this year after year after year,” Izzo said. “We’ve held our own in it.”
For the record, Kentucky is 5-1 in the event, Michigan State 3-3, Kansas and Duke each 2-4.
And this year, it glitters even more with No. 1 vs. No. 2. The very phrase evokes a certain aura, and it should. Some of college basketball’s most hallowed moments were born from such a matchup, using the Associated Press poll.
1957 – No. 1 North Carolina outlasted No. 2 Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain 54-53 in three overtimes to win the national championship and finish the season a perfect 32-0. It might be the best display of endurance in tournament history. The night before, the Tar Heels needed three overtimes to get past Michigan State.
1961-62 – Forty-nine states stepped aside while Ohio settled everything. Two years in a row, Ohio State carried the No. 1 ranking into the national championship game, and two years in a row the Buckeyes were foiled by No. 2 Cincinnati, 70-65 in overtime and 71-59. Those remain the last title games between teams from the same state.
1968 – First, came the Game of the Century. That’s the way it was marketed, anyway, when No. 2 Houston and Elvin Hayes edged No. 1 UCLA and Lew Alcindor 71-69 in the Astrodome; a mega-event that drew 52,000-plus and was the first regular season game ever nationally televised in prime time. Then came the rematch at the Final Four, with their rankings switched, not to mention their karma. No. 2 UCLA crushed No. 1 Houston 101-69.
1974 – One season, three No. 1 vs. No. 2 games, and UCLA in all of them. The top-ranked Bruins’ 88-game streak came to a famous end at No. 2 Notre Dame, 71-70, when they blew an 11-point lead in the last 3:32. They reconvened the next week in Westwood, with the Irish No. 1 and UCLA No. 2, and the Bruins breezed 94-75.
The real blow to UCLA came in March, when the No. 2 Bruins squandered a seven-point lead in the second overtime and lost to No. 1 North Carolina State 80-77 at the Final Four. Thus ended their seven-year hold on the national championship.
1975 – No. 1 UCLA over No. 2 Kentucky 92-85 for the title. Otherwise known as John Wooden’s last game.
1991 – No. 1 UNLV had stormed through every opponent by an average of 32 points, and many argued the only roadblock to a perfect season was a trip to No. 2 Arkansas, who had won 20 in a row. The Rebels rolled 112-105. But many were wrong; there was another roadblock. Duke in the Final Four.
1996 – Massachusetts carried the No. 1 ranking and a bright young coach to the Final Four, but lost to No. 2 Kentucky 81-74. The coach was John Calipari.
2005 – No. 2 North Carolina held off No. 1 Illinois 75-70 to give Roy Williams his first national title, the only 1-2 championship game in the past 42 years. It also made the Tar Heels 7-0 in 1-2 matchups, 4-0 as No. 1 and 3-0 as No. 2. They still are.
2008 – No. 2 Tennessee over No. 1 Memphis 66-62. The Memphis coach? John Calipari.
2013 – No. 2 Michigan State over No. 1 Kentucky 78-74 in the Champions Classic. The Kentucky coach? John Calipari. Yep, add another trivia question with Calipari as the answer: Who is the only coach to lose three times as No. 1 against No. 2, at three different schools?
2016 – No. 1 Kansas 109, No. 2 Oklahoma 106 in three overtimes, with the Sooners’ Buddy Hield scoring 46 points in a losing cause. That’s the most recent, leaving No. 1 teams with a 21-19 record against No. 2 opponents, though they’ve lost seven of the past 10.
The ledger doesn’t get changed often. It will Tuesday night.