NEW YORK -- The opening night of the season was even more surprising than anticipated. Immediate uh-ohs abound as six power-conference teams (No. 25 Virginia, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, California, Washington, Nebraska) lost at home to mid-major opponents. Three more power-conference teams that made last season's NCAA Tournament (No. 17 Ohio State, Wichita State, Colorado) narrowly escaped would-be embarrassing home defeats.
But of course, the biggest stories in the sport Tuesday emanated from New York City where the 11th annual Champions Classic was held. No. 3 Kansas and No. 9 Duke won. Michigan State and No. 10 Kentucky lost. Gary Parrish filed this column on what could be the start of a special final season for Duke under Mike Krzyzewski. I wrote off the undercard, Kansas' 87-74 win over MSU, which was highlighted by someone who may become one of the best players in the sport this season, Ochai Agbaji.
After talking with most of the coaches following both games, there's still more to share. Here's my insider's notebook on each team with thoughts from Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Bill Self and Tom Izzo on their teams' debuts.
The No. 1 story was the start of Coach K's send-off. The No. 2 story was how good Preseason All-American Paolo Banchero looked. But the most intriguing part to me was how fellow freshman Trevor Keels played.
"This kid right here is going to be a great player," Krzyzewski said of Keels. "... He weighs 230 pounds, and if he was a running back, he would know how to pick holes like, you intimated charge -- he gets fouled. He doesn't charge very much because he's so low and has great body control. For three straight years, he was probably the best player in the D.C. area."
Krzyzewski went the running back comparison route, but to me, Keels had the look of a roving middle linebacker. If he's going to be the kind of player who can bully his way to 15 points or more each night -- given his size and immediate comfort level, that feels probable -- Duke's going to be even better than anticipated. Frankly, it already looks like the ninth-ranked Blue Devils were underrated heading into the season. It was Keels, not Banchero, who led Duke in scoring (game-high 25 points). Banchero added 22; he missed a long stretch due to cramping, so his numbers would probably have been even better had that not happened.
It was just the second time in history that multiple Duke freshmen scored 20+ points in a debut game, according to the Blue Devils. The other was Nov. 6, 2018 vs. Kentucky when R.J. Barrett (33), Zion Williamson (28) and Cam Reddish (22) got it done. That's mighty encouraging. So is the fact that Duke led for almost 36 of the game's 40 minutes. It was a convincing opening statement from a program coming off its worst season in two-and-a-half decades. Krzyzewski touched on that, opening up even a little more than I anticipated.
"We were not good," he said of last season's 13-11 team. "We were just very mediocre. So that's why we brought the guys in as early as we could, and that's one of our succession plan things where John [Scheyer] was going to take over and then he was going to recruit the kids that were going to play for him, and I told him, I said, 'You guys stay on the road. I'm staying in.' The other thing we did, we only have 10 scholarship players, so we didn't go to the transfer portal for other players. We specifically told our guys that we're not doing that and they're our guys. Just a bunch of different things to build that level of trust and camaraderie."
Duke looked like a team that trusted each other, and that's not often the case with squads who add big, important new pieces. Last season could already be a distant memory. We'll know more about Duke when it plays its next big opponent, No. 1 Gonzaga, on Nov. 26 in Las Vegas.
The Jayhawks have been enjoying the Champions Classic as of late, going 5-1 the past six years. The only loss in that stretch was two years ago when KU lost by two vs. Duke but had 28 turnovers. That Kansas team would go on to lose just two more games before the season was cut short in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, Kansas had only nine turnovers, zero coming from Agbaji, which Self told me was a huge step forward in his development. Even better, Kansas managed to get 44 points in the paint, even though Agbaji -- a dynamic two-way wing -- was the game's leading scorer with 29. It was also Agbaji's eighth time cracking the 20-point barrier, but this was probably the best game of his career; he'd never had as many as 29 until Tuesday night.
"That's not the same Och we've seen the last couple of years," Self said.
As my column from Tuesday night highlighted, Agbaji's progress is based a lot in his belief to be an alpha, to be tough, to be commanding with the ball.
"I think he always thought he could be a dude, but I don't know if he really believed it in his core If he was ready to be a dude," Self said.
He is now most definitely a dude. Maybe that dude. You know the kind: reliable every single night and unafraid to take on any challenge. Self made sure to note the throwback nature of his best player's ascent. Growing into a great player over three or four years used to be the way. The atmosphere in the sport has washed away much of that, but there's still room for it if we allow it.
"The way our system's set up, you're not a one-and-done, you're not a two-and-done, you're failure in college," Self said. "It's such B.S. because some guys aren't ready to be that -- emotionally, talent-wise, they haven't had the same experiences. There's some guys, even though they could be a one-and-done, they've had experiences that some juniors and seniors hadn't had yet through the circuit and all this stuff. This dude [Agbaji] didn't start for his AAU team. He was top 300 -- I think he was 346th when we [recruited him]."
Just wait until Jalen Wilson returns from suspension. To me, Kansas looked like the best team at Madison Square Garden.
Despite a nine-win season last time around, an opening night loss to Duke shouldn't have Wildcats fans all that worried. Calipari said there were some easy shots missed, and the fact new point guard Sahvir Wheeler played almost the entire game was a mistake. At least in retrospect.
"Can't play a guy 38 [minutes] this early in the season," he said. "So, he should have played about 32, and he would have been fine, he wouldn't have had those turnovers. Not his fault; that's on me."
Kentucky went with seven guys, playing Wheeler 38 minutes and Kellan Grady 31. Oscar Tshiebwe, TyTy Washington, Jacob Toppin and Davion Mintz all played north of 20, while starting wing Keion Brooks Jr. was out there merely for 17 minutes, in large part because he was incapable of helping UK contain Paolo Banchero.
Here's the good news: Kentucky missed six of its first seven 3-point attempts before making six of its next 11 and finishing 39% from beyond the arc. Good gains. Wheeler ran out of battery late, evidenced by his five second-half turnovers. Washington was a freshman; he didn't have a good game. It's fine. Not everyone can be Trevor Keels or Paolo Banchero.
"I will take responsibility for some of the plays that he made," Calipari said. "And I just said to him, 'You know, kid, you don't have to make every shot. You just can't miss 'em all. You got to make one or two.' And he just was missing a bunch of shots, and if you watched him play, that's not him."
Calipari also harped on Kentucky's need for post presence. Gotta have it if they're going to win in the big picture. They had it. Tshiebwe was a revelation, the clear bright spot in the loss. It was an eye-opening performance with 17 points and 19 rebounds with an ORtg of 126, per KenPom. He seems like a legitimate threat to have a few 20/20 games this season. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Kentucky winds up having a better team than Duke. The 11-0 run deep in the second half to close the game to six points was encouraging.
"I loved our fight," Calipari said. "I loved our competitive spirit. And that's what our program is always been about."
UK will be cozy for a bit. Its next game against a big opponent doesn't come for a month when it will play at Notre Dame on Dec. 11.
I spent about 10 minutes one-on-one with Izzo as we walked out of MSG and down to the team bus. I have to admit some surprise with how he handled the loss. Sure, it's just the first game of the season and Izzo's been at this for eons, but a 13-point defeat with 16 turnovers had me wondering if Izzo might be aggravated.
Not at all.
"I'm not worried; we're going to be fine," he said. "Max [Christie] is going to be really, really good eventually."
Christie is the freshman wing who went for 9 points on 10 shots in 31 minutes. He'll probably become MSU's best player, but Izzo told me this could be a team without a true alpha. That's not a negative.
"We've had very good teams before that didn't a [main] guy," he said.
MSU's main guy on Tuesday was A.J. Hoggard, who had 17 points off the bench and kept the Spartans within shouting distance until Kansas started to tear at the fabric midway through the second half.
"What surprised me was the free throws," Izzo said. "I thought we'd be a great free throw team."
Instead, MSU got to the line 16 teams and made only nine of those shots. We'll see if the Spartans can be exceptional from the foul line in time. The team hasn't ranked in the top 30 nationally since 2005-06. But again, Izzo's not at all worried. He admitted his guys would have been better suited to play a mid-major at home to open the season (that opportunity is coming Friday vs. Western Michigan).
Ultimately, a game like this -- even as a loss -- serves the team better. The Spartans were the only unranked team at the Champions Classic. The results suggested that was a fair assessment.