If the Champions Classic is any indication of what's in store for the rest of the season in college hoops, it's going to be a fun year. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle were as good as advertised, if not better, and Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke and Kansas all showed the makings of Final Four teams.
The only bummer? The incessant whistles that often made the highly entertaining games look as if they were being played in slow-motion.
It may only be a few days into the season, but here are five things we learned from Tuesday night's Champions Classic:
GROWING PAINS: NBA scouts and coaches may be drooling over the young Wildcats, but Kentucky coach John Calipari was right to be concerned about how they'd fare against a tough, experienced Michigan State team. After steamrolling two nonconference patsies, the top-ranked Wildcats were humbled early and often by the No. 2 Spartans. Smothering the Wildcats defensively and leaving them flat-footed with their surprising speed on offense, Michigan State had a 10-0 lead before Kentucky got its first bucket. The 'Cats had seven turnovers before the midway point of the first half, and would finish with 17. They made just 20 of 36 free throws.
"You got guys crying in there, which is a good thing," Calipari said. "I want it to hurt like that. I knew this would get their attention." And if the Wildcats take this loss to heart, look out. Julius Randle nearly pulled off the comeback on his own, scoring 23 of his 27 points in the second half, including a jumper with 42 seconds that pared Michigan State's lead to 2. The Wildcats also outrebounded the Spartans 44-32 — yes, you read that right.
"They'll get better because of this game," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
SPARTY CAN RUN: Michigan State is often dismissed as a football team on hardwood because of its stingy, relentless defense. But these Spartans can run with the best of 'em. Really. Michigan State had 21 fast-break points, and the Wildcats will be having nightmares about all the times Gary Harris and Keith Appling left them in the dust.
"We've been trying to run since last year," Harris said. "This year, we're actually doing it. We put a bigger emphasis on it this summer, and we have the guys to do it."
WIGGINS VS. PARKER: Watching the wunderkids, it was easy to forget they're only two games into their college careers. Limited to only nine minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, Andrew Wiggins was simply dazzling in the second. After badgering coach Bill Self all day to guard Jabari Parker, he simply did it, essentially shutting Parker down over the last 10 minutes. Wiggins finished with 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including a long jumper and dunk that turned a tense, 2-point game into a Kansas victory. "It's just all pride. You take pride in what you do, if it's offense or defense," Wiggins said.
Parker was equally impressive, finishing with 27 points, nine rebounds, two steals and a block before fouling out with 1:16 left. "He was best player in the game for a big stretch tonight," Self said.
SWALLOW THE WHISTLE: New rules this season are intended to increase scoring and open up games that were little better than slugfests. So far all they've succeeded in doing is turning exciting games into tractor pulls. The Michigan State-Kentucky game was an excruciating 2½ hours, with 46 fouls called, including four in a 12-second span. The Duke-Kansas game was a little better, coming in around 2 hours, but with a whopping 53 fouls. No wonder there were groans and chants of "Let them play!" from fans.
"To be honest, I don't like it," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "It just takes away all aggressiveness defensively. ... We've got to adjust because that was a pretty fragmented game."
But Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he's tired of hearing everyone whine about the fouls. "The officials are doing what they're supposed to do. Everyone just has to keep adjusting," he said. "Too much is being said about it. Start playing the way we're supposed to play."
KEEP IT COMING: Games hyped as much as these were — "Sneak preview of the Final Four!" — often fall flat, particularly when they come so early in the season. But Michigan State-Kentucky and Kansas-Duke more than lived up to their billing, as did the individual matchups. With defending champion Louisville, Arizona, Michigan and about a dozen others looking like they've got the potential to go deep into March, this could be a heck of a season.
"I think it's going to be an unbelievable year for college basketball," Self said. "There's the potential for more great teams than what we've had in recent memory."