Things get real very quickly for the basketball world as first Duke and Michigan State, and then Kansas and Kentucky, tangle in the State Farm Champions Classic.
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This event, if it isn't an actual response to Coach K's criticisms of the early season, is a pretty good response: get four of the best teams in the same building and let them go at it.
We'd prefer a sort of early season precurser to the championship tournament - maybe 16 teams, all highly regarded, and see who comes out of that as top dog.
Rinse and repeat in March and April.
Part of the overall critique Coach K has provided is a desire for the sport to be managed more intelligently, perhaps with a commissioner for college hoops.
We'd like to say again that one of the few guys who are really suited to this theoretical position is Jay Bilas. Even Kentucky and UNC fans speak highly of him. His intellect is more than up to the job, and he's both combative and diplomatic enough to handle, let's say, difficult personalities.
Keep it in mind, but back to the business at hand.
Michigan State returns a couple of familiar names, but not many, really. Travis Trice, a senior now, scored 25 points and helped stave off a determined Navy squad in Michigan State's opener. The 6-0 guard averaged 7.3 ppg last season, so 25 is well above what he usually provides.
Likewise, Branden Dawson is back as well, and the 6-6 wing brings back 11.2 ppg and 8.3 rpg.
Denzel Valentine got 29.4 mpg last season and put up 8.0 ppg and 6.0 rpg.
Matt Costello also got meaningful minutes last season, averaging 14.7 per game and 4.0 ppg and 3.3 rpg.
Like Duke, the program which Michigan State perhaps most closely resembles, points are not as important as defense and team play. If you're getting significant minutes, Tom Izzo trusts you and knows he can count on you to defend and play hard-nosed basketball.
Past that, everyone else returning got minimal minutes.
Against Navy, Izzo leaned heavily on Valentine, Trice, Dawson and Costello, but also used junior Bryn Forbes ( 6-5 junior) for 27 minutes, freshman Lourawls Nairn Jr. for 20 and Galvin Schilling ( 6-9 soph) and freshman Marvin Clark, Jr. (6-6 freshman) for 13 minutes each.
Obviously there's no Adreian Payne, Keith Appling or Gary Harris; all three are off to the world of professional basketball.
Still, as we said, Michigan State is probably the closest program in the country to what Duke has done. Time after time, year after year, Izzo has recruited well, gotten guys to buy into a defense-first system which emphasizes teamwork over everything, and which rarely has even the slightest bit of flash (here the two program differ: Duke doesn't mind a bit of flash and swagger, but within the team concept of course).
From what we can tell from a distance, Michigan State is really first-rate in everything. We have immense admiration for what Izzo has built.
Like Michigan State, Duke is replacing tremendous talents. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood were both high NBA draft picks and while Tyler Thornton was not on that level, anyone who watched Duke should understand that he was a remarkable contributor.
For Duke, the surge in production is coming largely from the freshman class, which has been spectacular for the first two games.
The other day, Mike DeCourcy was reminiscing about his time with The Sporting News and his best memories and he talked about not fully appreciating Tim Duncan at first.
That's sort of how it is with Jahlil Okafor.
You watch him and you see the spin moves, the refined use of the backboard and it's impressive. But if you're looking for flashiness, for dunks stunning physicality, like DeCourcy, you're looking for the wrong things.
He's a good athlete, don't misunderstand. He's not someone you see and think that he's physically unusually, because other than being 6-11, he's not freakishly gifted.
His skills, though, are sublime, his understanding of the game beyond his years.
Offensively, he has excellent footwork - the spin move he whipped out in exhibition season was a stunner - and he has an excellent sense of where the basket is and how to put the ball in it.
Duh, you say, that's what basketball players do.
Well, yes and no. Some guys take more than their fair share of shots and miss tons (Kobe), and some just work within the system and profit handsomely (Duncan).
Someone has to put the ball in the basket, but the game is so much more than that. And Okafor gets that.
Watch when he's double-teamed and how effectively he passes out of that. It's an advanced version of Brian Zoubek, who did it after rebounds but wasn't expected to be a big part of the offense.
Okafor is, and he's getting the ball back out to the perimeter where a raft of three point shooters can bury it: Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Matt Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen and Tyus Jones can all bury it.
So far - and it's minimal competition and a small sample - but so far, Matt Jones is hitting .750, Winslow .600, Allen and Cook .500 and Tyus Jones .429.
For his part, to date Okafor is 17-20 (.850) and 7.5 rpg. He also has six assists in the two games.
When this season is over, we'll all remember Okafor holding the ball one-handed, like a grapefruit, and drilling passes to teammates who are parked at the line or heading towards the basket.
He's a much deadlier weapon than we had realized, and in more ways than we had imagined.
Winslow is proving to be a rough customer as well. He's strong, versatile and smart. He's also a remarkable passer who has had several assists in traffic and some for fast break points as well.
Duke is now starting Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook, and so far, that's working well. Cook is free to freelance and drive, while Jones is a more classic point guard.
Duke can bring Matt Jones, Allen, Rasheed Sulaimon and Semi Ojeleye in, and the potential defense is just terrific.
There's never a reason to let up.
Duke has two other guys who might be overlooked but shouldn't be: Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee.
Both guys went through some hard knocks earlier in their careers. Jefferson, a twig as a freshman, was forced to play center at times and was not ready. Plumlee is nothing if not a center, but he had foot problems which slowed his progress.
Both are aggressive, tough-minded and can drive their team with energy and passion.
And Jefferson is the team's primary communicator, a conduit between bench and court.
Right now, Jefferson's averaging nearly a double-double. We wouldn't necessarily expect that to continue, but there's enough talent on the roster to leave him plenty of opportunities. He's not really a guy who is likely to score big, but he'll get his share.
You know who he reminds us of? We're surprised not to have thought of it before: A.C. Green. He is even moves a lot like Green did. He's built very much like Green and has a similar skill set.
For Duke, the Navy game may not be such a good omen.
Izzo has long been willing to play tough opponents early and to live with the consequences, but realistically, Navy should never have been on the same court.
As Izzo said afterwards, the Midshipmen played with military discipline, as one would expect.
As for Duke, the Spartans have one real problem as Alvin Ellis hurt his ankle against Navy and will probably not be ready for Duke.
And Forbes banged up his left hand, which may slow him as well if he plays at all. Bess is out with a foot injury as well.
Fortunately, Izzo has a promising freshman point, and one of the great names in college basketball, in Lourawls Nairn. Apparently someone in his family appreciates the late singer - twice over.
His nickname is even better: Tum-Tum.
Tum-Tum is from the Bahamas, not your usual place to find sub six-foot point guards.
You might think Duke has an advantage, but Michigan State is yielding nothing.
"I'm just looking forward to this challenge, I really am," Izzo told the Detroit News. I'm looking forward to seeing where my team is. I didn't really have a good feel going into the Navy game where we were. I really don't have a good feel coming out of it because you lose a guy two-and-a-half minutes into the game now you're going to play a guy you weren't going to play as much because of his hand at the time. Everything kinda changed.
"Was I pleased with it? No, I was really disappointed. Do I think there's a carryover? Not even close. That's not the way we practiced all spring, summer and fall."
That's not boasting. That's pride in what Izzo has built, which is a remarkably consistent and powerful program. You can never rule them out, and you certainly shouldn't Tuesday night.
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- Short-handed Spartans ready for big stage vs. Duke
- Okafor Named ACC Freshman of the Week
- MBB Game Notes: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 18, 2014)
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