Once the anchor of college basketball’s opening night, the Champions Classic now tips in the season’s second week. The initial reason for the move was related to the season’s start date being bumped from a Tuesday to a Monday, but the event is locked into the second week on the calendar now, seemingly for good. A big reason why: The coaches involved want more time with their teams to get themselves ready with easier matchups, rather than match up with another elite team on opening night.
Tuesday’s Duke vs. Michigan State opener in Chicago likely did little to convince either coach that they want this game on opening night moving forward. If anything, both coaches might have preferred another few weeks before throwing their teams into a game like this. It was a slog, particularly in the first half, when the teams combined for 19 turnovers and just 51 points, but eventually Duke took control and dealt Michigan State its second loss of the season, winning 74–65. It’s not the start the Spartans—picked in the top five of the preseason AP Poll and expected to challenge Purdue for a Big Ten championship—envisioned, and raises questions again whether this team is destined for another year closer to the bubble than the top of the bracket.
Michigan State’s poor shooting won’t continue forever. The Spartans’ 6-of-19 from distance Tuesday looked like the Golden State Warriors in their prime compared to the dismal 6.5% they shot in their first two games of the season, but still was a far cry from the blistering 39.3% from distance that they shot a season ago. And MSU did play with renewed purpose in the second half after a rather lifeless showing in the first. But for a team that returned four starters and a fifth key rotation piece in Malik Hall, Michigan State very much looks like a team still finding its way, and that take comes independent of whether the Spartans had avoided disaster last week against James Madison. They didn’t get many easy shots (43% of their shots came from midrange) and didn’t make enough of the easy ones they did get. Fifth-year guard Tyson Walker had a big second-half flurry that helped MSU cut its deficit to three, but that spurt was short-lived, and Duke mostly kept the Spartans at arms length the rest of the way.
That said, Izzo’s concern level, at least externally, seems rather low—at least by “Top five team loses twice in the first nine days of the year” standards. Postgame, he hammered home his belief that his team is making progress, even if the shots haven’t started falling yet.
“I can’t blame players for missing open shots. My job is to get them open shots, which I don’t think I did a good job off against James Madison. I think we did a better job tonight,” Izzo said. “Is it in their head? Maybe it is. But we’re going to get it out of their head.”
Huge early-season tests like this one do make it hard for Izzo to keep working in his highly-rated freshmen class. Five-star recruit Xavier Booker got five minutes in the first half but was a DNP in the second, while touted PG recruit Jeremy Fears had just four second-half minutes, even with starting point guard AJ Hoggard shooting 1-of-8 from the field on the night. Athletic wing Coen Carr had an impactful second-half stretch, but his minutes remain inconsistent.
“Our freshmen aren’t ready yet,” Izzo claimed again postgame.
But the more this veteran group struggles, the more pressure will be on to get them ready. Hoggard told Izzo in the locker room postgame to bench him for Fears if his play doesn’t improve. While Izzo appreciated his senior’s leadership, it feels unlikely that will become reality. The longtime Spartan coach remains resolute that the ship will be righted sooner rather than later, but the reality is that Michigan State has lost 13 games in each of the last three years with this current core, and at least youngsters like Fears and Carr have the chance to elevate the Spartans in a way the veterans may not.
The biggest revelation in a learning night for Duke was the play of freshman guard Caleb Foster, whose 18 points led the Blue Devils. It was a loud 18 too: A flurry early in the second half to gain some separation from the Spartans, then another pair of threes to essentially ice the game in the final four minutes. The performance was particularly surprising given Foster had been held scoreless in 13 minutes just a few nights before against Arizona.
“Caleb, he’s as hard as any worker we have on the team, first of all, and he’s coming off a game on Friday. He didn’t like the way it went and whether he’s pissed at me, pissed at how he played,” Scheyer said. “I just think it says a lot about him [to respond].”
And while at least by Duke standards the Blue Devils have plenty of roster continuity, with four starters back from a year ago, there’s more work that needs to be done than meets the eye. Getting sophomore Tyrese Proctor to the level many outsiders expected has taken time, though the Australian had his best game of the season with 13 points and six assists Tuesday. Duke’s also playing smaller with Kyle Filipowski as a center more often this year, though grad student Ryan Young was a +24 in his minutes off the bench in more traditional lineups for the Blue Devils. Avoiding an 0–2 start in big games heading into a quieter stretch before a road trip to Arkansas at the end of the month was key, and they found a way to do just that.
“Even though we’re returning a lot from last year, it’s still so new,” Scheyer said. “Everybody is in a different role. We’re playing differently because of the way our team is. You’re having to adjust to what the team needs.”
Scheyer did say postgame that, given the choice, he’d prefer to keep the Classic following a few early tuneups rather than on opening night. But there’s little doubt in his mind that playing Arizona and Michigan State within days of the start of the season has helped his team grow up quickly.
“I’ve learned more about this team in the first three games than maybe any team I’ve been with,” Scheyer said.