While Game 1 of the Champions Classic in the Chicago was more compelling on paper, Game 2 turned out to be more competitive on the court. After No. 2 Kentucky defeated No. 5 Duke 74–63, No. 13 Michigan State beat No. 4 Kansas 79–73 in a game that was within one possession with as little as 29 seconds remaining. Here are three takeaways from the Spartans’ win:
1. Denzel Valentine is a serious Player of the Year candidate.
SI considered Valentine an under-the-radar player of the year candidate in the preseason, and he certainly looked like a prime contender for the Wooden and Naismith Awards on Tuesday night. While he wasn’t incredibly efficient (shooting just 10-of-23 from the floor and 3-of-9 from deep), Valentine proved on Tuesday night that he would be Michigan State’s star. On an upperclassmen-heavy team, Valentine is the clear leader and the default offensive option. Late in the game, Tom Izzo ceded time to Valentine in the huddle. And on the court, Valentine was nothing short of spectacular.
He finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, the first triple double of his career—but probably not the last one. (He is also just the fourth Spartan to record a triple double, joining Magic Johnson, Draymond Green and Charlie Bell.) Michigan State finished with 79 points, and Valentine either scored or assisted on 57 of them. He is the top reason why Michigan State was able to crawl out of a 13-point deficit and finish with a resume- and confidence-building win.
2. Perry Ellis is a serious Player of the Year candidate.
If you followed the game on Twitter, you probably know more about Perry Ellis’s age than you do about how good of a player he is. Ellis came to Kansas looking like a senior and has stayed for four years (which, by the way, is the length of time a lot of people attend college). That combined with a little Jayhawk jealousy has made him the captain of the “how is he still in school?” team this season. There’s no doubt, though, that Kansas values—and leans on—his experience.
Ellis was an efficient 50% from the floor on Tuesday, finishing with 21 points and six rebounds and even flashing the potential that he may have a three-point shot this season (which would help Kansas’s spacing significantly). If Kansas can get Cheick Diallo out of NCAA purgatory, its frontcourt will be one of the best in the country. If not, it may get outrebounded regularly, as it did against Michigan State.
3. These teams will be even more fun when their rosters are (hopefully) healthy and eligible.
The NCAA needs to clear Cheick Diallo. Jeff Goodman of ESPN reported Tuesday night that Diallo watched the game from his dorm room by himself. He has proven to be a capable student at Kansas, and basketball is not just a hobby, but also a path to a better life for him and his family. It’d be a shame for him if his draft stock plummeted while he sat on the bench. And it’d be a shame for college basketball fans not to see him in action—and not witness what could be a really special Kansas team.
Michigan State, meanwhile, looked deep despite lacking the services of Gavin Schilling (turf toe) and Marvin Clark Jr. (foot). These Spartans already seemed destined to be Tom Izzo’s next March success story, but if they’re fully healthy in conference play, they could also become Maryland’s top challenger in the Big Ten. This game had an NCAA tournament feel to it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping for a postseason rematch. In the interim, though, these teams will provide plenty of entertaining basketball.