CHICAGO — The Champions Classic on Tuesday night gave us a look at two teams that are establishing an identity (Kentucky and Kansas) and two still searching in Duke and Michigan State.
Here’s what we know about each of the four teams and where they need to go from here.
Hunter Dickinson’s performance against Kentucky was why Bill Self wanted a scoring big. Dickinson is already proving he’s the most refined back-to-the-basket player Self has ever coached, and Kansas is ahead of the game in knowing exactly how it wants to play and who it wants to play through.
The value of Dickinson was unmistakable down the stretch, especially on what turned out to be the game-deciding bucket. KU ran a set to get Dickinson the ball on the left block, and Kentucky was ready for it. This is what Dickinson saw when he caught the ball:
Dickinson always looks middle whenever he catches it, which is one reason why he’s such a good passer out of the post. He could have skipped a pass to Nick Timberlake on the opposite wing, but this play was called for him to score and he realized going to his right shoulder was the only real option. The only issue was that he caught the ball so close to the baseline that there wasn’t much room to go that way. A jump hook wasn’t available. This is what makes Dickinson special. As he spun baseline, he realized he had leverage, but he also saw help was on the way with Antonio Reeves lurking. Watch how he takes a second hard high dribble to control his momentum and make sure he can finish on the left side, avoiding the help.
A lack of spacing is a real concern for Kansas this season when shots aren’t falling, but Dickinson is so good that sometimes it doesn’t matter.
The early returns on KU’s supersized lineup are promising too. The Bill Self high-low is back! And it’s not just Dickinson eating. KJ Adams’ man can cheat when it’s Dickinson sealing on the blocks, but Dickinson’s ability to shoot and Adams being guarded by fours is opening up new ways for him to score. Adams scored three times from the post against the Wildcats and is a perfect 6-of-6 on post-ups this season. Two of his buckets were off post pins; he has four of those already already in three games. He had six all of last year when he played the center spot, per Synergy.
Down the stretch, Kansas knew exactly what it wanted, either feeding Dickinson or putting Dajuan Harris Jr. in a ball screen late in the shot clock. Dickinson dominated, but Harris controlled the game. He burned Kentucky’s strategy to go under ball screens and leave him alone outside the 3-point line, burying five of his six 3-point attempts.
If defenses have to start respecting his 3-ball, this is where he gets real dangerous. Both Dickinson and Adams are good screeners and thrive in the short roll. The goal is to always get Harris’s man to try to fight over the screen, so he can get a step and get into the paint. This is where Harris’s patience always gets KU a good shot. Twice in the second half it looked like he was out of space under the backboard, and he found cutters.
Over the game’s final seven possessions, Kansas scored 14 points. This is what experience does. The Jayhawks knew what they wanted, who they wanted to take the shots and “we have one of the best playbooks in the game,” Harris said.
The Jayhawks were far from perfect on Tuesday. They struggled to guard the ball in the first half, their bench was unreliable and their guards not named Harris shot it poorly (0 of 11 from 3). But their ability to execute and not panic and their faith in Self is going to make them feel like they can win any game no matter how deep a hole they get in.
This team is John Calipari’s midlife crisis. This is his convertible. Only, it’s practical. Kentucky is playing a style that fits its roster. Its speed overwhelmed Kansas for a stretch, and it’s what the Cats need to play to this season.
Calipari has gone away from pounding the ball inside and floppy sets for his shooters to controlling things less and letting his players make plays. Kentucky’s best offense against Kansas was giving the ball to Robert Dillingham and letting him make decisions. When he was in transition or the initial read was easy, he thrived. In a high ball screen set, both Dillingham and Reed Sheppard had the freedom to fire if KU went under ball screens.
Dillingham and Sheppard each made one of those 3s, which are shots that would have given Calipari an ulcer the past few seasons when he tried to micromanage every possession. The Cats are attempting 43.3 percent of their shots from deep. It’s a return to dribble-drive Memphis Cal, when he built his teams around speed and creating lanes for them to race down. He’s modernized this version with stretch-five Tre Mitchell. Sure, it has been out of necessity with his three 7-footers sidelined, but credit Cal for using Mitchell as an initiator on the perimeter. He says his team will continue playing this way when the bigs are back.
“They can pass it, they can shoot it, they can bounce it,” Calipari said. “They may be 7-foot-2, but they’re basketball players, so the stuff that we’re doing with Tre out on the floor, they can do too.”
Kentucky fell short against No. 1 Kansas, but the long view is promising
What the Kansas game should have shown Calipari is that he needs to stick to his word. He needs to keep the floor spaced even when they return. The worry about getting crushed by a true big like Dickinson isn’t really relevant in most games. The best sign for Kentucky’s long-term success was how KU planted Dickinson in the paint defensively, sagging off whoever he was guarding — usually Adou Thiero — and how Kentucky didn’t allow that strategy to change its own. It stagnated the Cats in the opening minutes, but Thiero wisely was used as a cutter and offensive rebounder. When the help crept too far over, the non-shooters made some smart cuts.
Or sprayed it out for 3s.
The Cats also played to mismatches, boomeranging the ball back to a guard when they’d get a switch.
Where Kentucky struggled down the stretch was in its decision-making. Instead of probing and being willing to make second and third attacks, there was some impatience.
This is where Calipari needs to teach. Not every shot will come off the first penetration. This is where Dillingham needs to grow. His leeway was short, and he got pulled after plays like this one. But Calipari did KU a favor. Dillingham’s speed had KU on its heels. He puts puts more stress on the defense than any other UK player. How Dillingham and Reed combined for only 32 minutes while DJ Wagner played 25 is puzzling. Sheppard already has a veteran’s poise and can be effective on the ball or spacing in a corner.
But it’s early. There could be games where Wagner will be the hot hand and Calipari could ride him. Same with Justin Edwards, who struggled shooting (0 of 6); his presence was more understandable because KU respected his shooting ability and his gravity helped space the floor. Dillingham or Sheppard don’t necessarily need to be moved into the starting lineup, but Kentucky would benefit from both playing more. It’s kind of like when Tyler Ulis came off the bench and the Harrison twins were the starters. Sometimes the spark off the bench makes sense in the big picture. It’s fine so long as Dillingham is playing starter minutes, especially when he’s cooking.
How good this team ends up could depend on how willing Calipari is to stick to the style and not put a cap on the 3-point shooting. By being willing to shoot all those 3s, it’s going to open up the floor. And that’s how this team will get easy baskets in the paint. Take away the ability to fire away, and the court is going to get a lot smaller. And Kentucky’s highest ceiling will be Dillingham becoming the crunch-time initiator. His evolution will be making sure his team gets a good shot in clutch situations. Kentucky was unsure what to run and who to go to down the stretch, and that was the difference in the game.
The Arizona game showed how much Duke misses Dereck Lively II. From Feb. 18 on last season, the Blue Devils were the second-best team in college basketball with the 10th-best offense, according to Bart Torvik’s sorting tool. They had an identity late in the season when Lively became an elite rim roller. He put pressure on the rim, and it opened up shots for everyone else.
Against Arizona, the Blue Devils were too easy to guard. Most possessions came down to either one player attacking in isolation or a two-man game where everyone else stood around. These type of possessions make it really easy on the defense, especially the help defenders who can lock onto the ball.
It’s is a roll-out-the-ball-and-let-our-pros-be-pros kind of strategy. Duke’s talent is good, but it’s not that level. Jon Scheyer needs to find ways to create advantages for his guards, especially Tyrese Proctor, who is off to a slow start and hasn’t been very assertive.
The answer is utilizing the gravity of Kyle Filipowski.
The Michigan State game offered glimpses of what that looks like and also some example of where Duke can get better. Filipowski has finished only seven possessions as a roller so far — scoring 13 points — and that frequency should go up. But it doesn’t have to be all Filipowski scoring. When he pops, he’s going to create a domino effect.
These advantage situations are where Proctor is best. (The ending isn’t ideal, but a majority of the time the recipient of that pass is going to finish.)
Where Duke needs to get better is opening up space for the pop.
As the middle ball screen is happening and Jeremy Roach sees Filipowski is going to pop, he needs to cut to open up the space for Filipowski.
Proctor was a breakout candidate whom The Athletic tabbed as a preseason All-American. The expectations were big, but he’s underwhelming so far as a scorer, averaging 9.7 points with a 44.4 effective field-goal percentage. One reason for Proctor’s slow start is he’s not using ball screens effectively.
Proctor needs to put his left shoulder into his defender here, making it so he can run his man right into Filipowski’s screen. Instead, the angle he comes off gives him no advantage.
Filipowski is also not always popping when he should.
When Filipowski sees his man hedge, he should pop and Caleb Foster should cut once the ball is in the air. Then Filipowski either has an open shot or he’s attacking a closeout.
The other way to play through him is in the post. He’s shooting 63.6 percent on 13 post-ups this season. Michigan State didn’t want to let him go one-on-one there.
When the double doesn’t come right away but help defenders loom, he’s not always seeing the pass.
This force ended up in a blocked shot. To his credit, when the hard double came late, he delivered a pass for one of the most important 3s of the game.
Filipowski only has four assists all season. His assists should go up if he plays the right way.
Duke is going to have to get creative with Mark Mitchell, whose shot looks broken. His defender staying in the paint creates challenges. But if the Blue Devils learn how to best utilize Filipowski and how to play off him, then they’ll start to look more like the team everyone expected them to be in the preseason.
Caleb Foster had ‘that look.’ And now Duke might have another star freshman
On the surface, Michigan State’s troubles seem to be as simple as poor shooting. The Spartans were the the third-most accurate 3-point shooting team in the country a year ago when they made 39.3 percent of their 3s. They’re shooting 16 percent this season.
Some of it is bad luck. They’re 4-of-24 on unguarded catch-and-shoot 3s, per Synergy. That number is going to progress toward the mean. But it’s not all bad luck. Not enough was made by the loss of Joey Hauser, who made a team-best 77 3s at a 46.1 percent clip.
Hauser made it easier to run offense. A simple pick-and-roll-and-replace with Hauser as the replace guy lifting up for a shot was easy action to run that became a staple. Without him, the Spartans are struggling to figure out how to get their shots.
Tyson Walker has been awesome — 23.7 points per game — and he may need to have a higher usage rating than any player Tom Izzo’s ever coached, but he needs help. Most of Izzo’s best teams have a post presence. This one doesn’t.
But the Spartans need to find ways to put pressure on the rim, and the best option seems to be getting their guards downhill. That can be tough when there’s not a lot of shooting on the floor, but this is what it should look like:
Too often on Tuesday, Michigan State was trying to take advantage of Duke backup center Ryan Young with ball screens where no real movement proceeded it. These type of actions that get the defense moving seem to be the best solution.
The Spartans also need to look to push the pace and look for rim runs like this:
Malik Hall also seems to be the second-best isolation option. Trying to create switches and get him going against mismatches would also be good offense.
Most of Michigan State’s offensive possessions were hard to watch. Izzo needs to simply figure out ways for his guys to get shots where they’re comfortable. This team might not ever live up to the preseason hype, but the defensive ceiling is higher this year than last. And young guys like Coen Carr and Jeremy Fears Jr. are going to get better. A year ago they started 5-4 and ended up in the Sweet 16.
My colleague Dana O’Neil said this week that Tyson Walker reminds her of Kemba Walker. And I could see it. The other three teams at the Champions look to have higher ceilings, but this could still be a team that gets hot and goes on a run. The season is long. Izzo has a pretty good track record, and sometimes teams that look mediocre for four months have a guard like Kemba Walker and end up winning a national title.
I’m not betting on it, but I’m also not completely writing off the Spartans.
(Top photo of Hunter Dickinson: Erin Hooley / AP)