The revitalized Bears have recaptured the city, and the Cubs’ feel-good story continues with awards rolling in to salute a 97-win, playoff season. The Bulls are doing fine without Tom Thibodeau’s grumpy obsessions, and the Blackhawks … well, Patrick Kane is making news for admirable reasons.
But college basketball commanded the local spotlight Tuesday night, with perennial heavyweights Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State taking over the United Center for the Champions Classic. All but the Jayhawks were Final Four participants last season.
Kentucky, No. 2 to North Carolina in the early polls, had too much of everything for defending NCAA champion Duke in the opener, grinding out a 74-63 victory. No. 13 Michigan State had to work harder, overcoming a nine-point second-half-deficit to whip No. 5 Kansas 79-73 in the second game.
Were this a tournament rather than a made-for-TV spectacle, a title game matching Kentucky’s talent and MSU’s want-to would be a stimulating proposition.
Duke-Kentucky was, as usual, an NBA waiting room, with McDonald’s All-Americans dominating both rosters. John Calipari has been a one-and-done maestro since arriving at Kentucky in 2010, but Duke is familiar with that M.O. as well — seven of the 30 first-round picks in last June’s NBA draft were Wildcats or Blue Devils, six of them freshmen.
Replacing that much talent is a tall (heh-heh) order, but Kentucky appears to be doing so with freshmen guards Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe and 6-11 Skal Labissiere, a Haitian import, possessed of myriad skills. Murray and Briscoe combined for 28 points, eight rebounds and six assists, while foul trouble limited Labissiere to 13 minutes.
But the Wildcats’ best player may well be an ancient sophomore, 5-9 Tyler Ulis, a wily, pass-first point guard from Marian Catholic who had 18 points, six assists, two steals and zero turnovers in 40 minutes, running the game with Trump-like self-assurance.
“When Skal got in foul trouble, someone had to step up, and I felt like our backcourt took care of it,” Ulis said. “We’re going to be trouble in a fast-paced game like that. We can push the ball, and we’re unselfish.”
Calipari said there was a reason Ulis played all 40 minutes. “When he’s off the floor, we’re not the same. He’s a skilled player with a great feel for the game.”
The pace in Game 2 seemed slower and more grounded until MSU senior Denzel Valentine took over, scoring 21 of his game-high 29 points in the second half. Valentine also had 12 rebounds and 12 assists. Freshman Matt McQuaid buried back-to-back three-pointers and blocked Frank Mason’s layup during the Spartans’ game-closing run.
The talent on the floor in Game 1 was often breathtaking — Marcus Lee’s alley-oop slam off Ulis’ halfcourt pass had the crowd in a tizzy — but the precision not so much, befitting a mid-November game.
Both teams missed shots they’ll routinely knock down next month, and Duke’s 16 turnovers helped the Wildcats to 18 fast-break points.
Kentucky doesn’t attack in waves as it did last season, when its second unit was probably a Sweet 16 team, but the Wildcats play hard, they play fast and they play together — assists accompanied 15 of their 30 baskets.
On defense, their challenge-everything approach led to a total neutralization of Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram, the Blue Devils’ two top scorers. Allen missed all nine of his first-half shots and finished with six points, while Ingram had as many turnovers (four) as points.
The 37-31 halftime score was deceiving in that Kentucky appeared to be the stronger, deeper and better team. It was more jab than haymaker, but the 10-3 burst with which the Wildcats hit Duke early in the second half gave them an 11-point lead that wouldn’t shrink below eight.
Calipari called it “a good win,” but he wasn’t satisfied. “The grit we need to play with on defense was not there,” he said.
You suspect it will come.