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Takeaways from the Champions Classic in Indy — Blue Bloods, key players and a made-for-TV event
Kentucky fans filled the majority of seats, but NBA personnel were spread out across Gainbridge Fieldhouse to watch some of the best in college basketball.
One event each year brings four of the best college basketball teams in the country together in one arena for an early-season spectacular.
This wasn’t one big school against Savannah State, Houston Christian or Coppin State. It was three top 10 teams and a fringe top-25 caliber squad led by a Hall of Fame coach.
Michigan State and Kentucky, then Kansas and Duke
The 12th annual State Farm Champions Classic was held at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Tuesday for the fourth time in 12 years. And it did not disappoint.
The first game went into two overtimes, then despite an hour delay getting to the second game of the double-header, it did not disappoint. Both games were decided in the final minute and entertained the 15,828 fans on hand.
Number one, this was certainly a corporate event. That was made clear with sponsors Sate Farm and ESPN Events displayed numerous places on the hardwood. No band, no cheerleaders and it was not the environment that makes college basketball unique.
That can only be accomplished on campus.
However, what this great event does provide: a superb primetime audience, national exposure for current players and to reach recruits, and Blue Blood matchups that could be a preview to the NCAA Tournament.
While most top teams are hesitant to schedule Michigan State's schedule starts like this: Northern Ariona, No. 2 Gonazaga, No. 4 Kentucky, Villanova, No. 18 Alabama and Notre Dame — all before Big Ten play begins in December. And it was coach Tom Izzo’s team that topped UK in two overtimes, 86-77.
These two games were good theater, even if the college game is difficult to watch when I’m taking in NBA games 95% of the time. The game, talent level and officiating is much different.
For instance, in the second game, there must have been seven charging fouls issued. Tie always went to the defender, not the offense. That was clearly on the preseason list to emphasize by officials, but is no good for teams or fans.
In both games, I watched two players closely and will share brief comments below.
Kentucky’s Cason Wallace | 6-4 guard | Freshman
Bright future. Defense first. He had eight steals, two more than the entire Spartans team. Made some freshman mistakes, but I like his potential.
Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe | 6-9 forward | Senior
He is a stud. Dominant. The most impactful player on the floor. That’s why when he fouled out late in the first overtime, MSU was likely going to win. He had 22 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks. I didn’t like him celebrating a huge block late ended up costing them a bucket because then he was out of position. He’s an older player, a four-year guy after transferring in from West Virginia after his sophomore season.
I went in thinking Chris Livingston was a player to highlight, but he was underwhelming. He still has a ways to go. He’s just a freshman.
MSU’s Joey Hauser | 6-9 forward | Senior
He was clearly the heart of the team. He played 46 minutes and said all the right things postgame. He’s an example of what makes — or made? — college basketball special. Players who are with a program for multiple years, where you see growth in numbers, skillset and leadership. And as the midrange is devalued, he sure liked it. Solid jumper even around traffic.
MSU’s Malik Hall | 6-8 forward | Senior
Right way, you notice how he has an NBA build. 6-8, 220 with length. That’s the type of player on the wing teams can’t get enough of. The Pacers’ biggest area of need is a 3-and-D player out on the wing. He’s a four-year guy at MSU under Izzy. He played well offensively, finishing with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Wanted to see him take more 3s. I’m curious how he’ll look in March at the Big Ten Tournament.
Duke’s Kyle Filipowski | 7-0 center | Freshman
Oh, there’s so much to like about this freshman. He did a little bit of everything. Can handle the ball as a big man; can shoot, attack and create. Attempted the most 3s (6) on his team as a 7-foot center. Finished with 17 & 14. Very intriguing. I can see him being a lottery pick in June.
Duke’s Tyrese Proctor | 6-5 guard | Freshman
An NBA team will be happy to have him at point guard soon. More development is needed, but he flashed much of his skillset.
Kansas’ Jalen Wilson | 6-8 forward | Junior
He stood out to me at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last May. He wants to do all the small things like playing hard, communicate, take charges and lead the team. And the junior wants to show NBA teams that he can step out to the 3-point line. He made three triples in each of the first two games, but missed all seven tries in this one. He attempted a staggering 26 shots, making 11.
Kansas’ Gradey Dick | 6-8 guard | Freshman
A lot of eyes on him after he dropped 23 points in their season-opener. We know he can shoot, but was impressed me was how crafty he was around the basket. He maneuvered through traffic well and finished against length. It was interesting to see Duke go at him defensively, and have success early in the second half.
Now … to the more interesting part of the event.
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In the Stands
The pair of games hosted between 75 to 80 NBA scouts and executives, a league source told Fieldhouse Files. There’s scouts scattered across the country, but this is likely the largest-attended event — for obvious reasons — until tournament time.
Among those in the crowd:
Pacers executives Chad Buchanan, Kelly Krauskopf and Ted Wu
Warriors executives Bob Myers, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Larry Harris
Celtics’ Brad Stevens, Mike Zarren
Thunder executives Sam Presti, Nick Collison
Hawks GM Landry Fields
76ers executive Peter Dinwiddie
Trail Blazers assistant GM Mike Schmitz
Grizzlies executive Tayshaun Prince, who also played at UK
Team USA qualifying coach Jim Boylen, who lives in Indy
Mad Ants coach Tom Hankins
Celtics guard Jayson Tatum was courtside to see Duke
2012 Indiana Mr. Basketball Gary Harris sat behind the Michigan State bench. He's part of the Orlando Magic, but he has not yet played after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to perform a meniscectomy in his left knee back on Sept. 1. The Magic play in Indy on Saturday and Monday.
Former Indiana and Michigan State assistant Dane Fife
NBA analyst and MSU alum Steve Smith
Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings to see her nephew, Kale Catchings, who transferred to Duke from Harvard.
And many, many more. That’s just a small sample size.
Next year, it will return to Chicago for the fourth time.
Meanwhile, across the street, Pacers rookie forward Kendall Brown was getting work in with Mad Ants assistant coaches Dylan DeBusk and Steve Miknis. He is just getting over Covid.
One Final Thought
What’s keeping men’s college basketball from switching to quarters, rather than halves, like the rest of the world? It leads to a much better and natural flow.
High school, G League, overseas and the NBA all play quarters. Even women’s college basketball switched from halves to four quarters starting with the 2015-16 season. I personally prefer quarters, and more than anything, it would be consistent on all levels.