Atlanta — The Champions Classic, which is in the second year of a three-year run, calls together powerhouse programs Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State to take part in a one-day, early-season, best-of-the-best, made-for-ESPN doubleheader.
“It’s a great deal. The concept is great. The concept is terrific. We’re happy and proud to be part of it, absolutely,” said KU coach Bill Self.
Actually the only problem with the Classic, which today pits No. 7-ranked KU against No. 21 Michigan State at 6 p.m., in the Georgia Dome, and Duke against Kentucky about 8:30 p.m., is two of the four teams must take a loss — a trade-off for the great exposure.
“This is a huge game out of the gate for us, much like the Kentucky game was in the Garden last year. But we weren’t quite ready for that,” Self said of a 75-65 loss to the Wildcats in the 2011 Champions Classic in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“Now the question is ... how are we going to play in the Georgia Dome?” he added of the 26,000-seat (for basketball) domed stadium, site of the 2012 Champions Classic event as well as the 2013 Final Four.
“Last year we go to the Garden and Thomas (Robinson) struggles his butt off to score 10 points (11 points, 12 boards) and isn’t any good. Our only offense was Tyshawn getting fouled in the second half (Tyshawn Taylor had 22 points courtesy of 15 of 17 foul shooting). It was awful. That team ended up being pretty good but we were awful early. This is just something I hope we are ready and prepared because with our young kids you never know until they get out there. I think we have got a couple that are ready to go.”
The Jayhawks are facing a Michigan State team that fell to UConn, 66-62, Friday, in its season opener in Germany. The game served as the debut of freshman point guard Gary Harris, a 6-4 McDonald’s All-American out of Fishers, Ind.
MSU, which returns four of its top six scorers from a (29-8) Big 10 co-champion/Sweet 16 team, also starts a sophomore in 6-6 Branden Dawson, juniors in 6-10 Adreian Payne and 6-1 Keith Appling and a senior in 6-9 Derrick Nix.
“I think it’s great to play a tough opponent. I really do,” Self said. “I do think all coaches wish you had another week or two to get ready. Look at last year,” Self added. “Four of our first five are Kentucky (loss), Georgetown (win), UCLA (win) and Duke (loss). That would probably be too much for this team. It’ll give us a great gauge of where we are at. Certainly it’ll help Michigan State as well.”
If the Jayhawks are to defeat the Spartans to even their record at 1-1 in the Champions Classic, they likely will have to overcome the size and physicality of 6-10 Payne and 6-9 Nix.
“They keep you off your spot,” Self said. “They are big at the 3 (small forward) with Dawson, who can play the 4 (power forward). I anticipate them being the same as always — running really fast from defense to offense and rebounding as well as anybody in the country. It’ll be a big challenge getting on the glass. How can we slow them down when they come at us? That’ll be the biggest key to the game. How can we eliminate them getting easy baskets?
“Michigan State will expose us if we don’t play well because they’ll make us be an execution team since they don’t give up easy baskets. We’ll try to figure out how tough we are in rebounding, going for loose balls. They are great at that and take pride in that. It will be interesting to see how our young guys react under the lights too. It’s one thing to play at home and be nervous. It’s another thing to go on the road and have to do it somewhere else. It’ll be a great experience for us.”
KU senior Travis Releford thinks the Jayhawks old and young will handle the pressure just fine.
“Coach brought it to their (freshmen) attention. He said, ‘You think you are nervous before 16,300, wait until you get in an arena with 30,000; how you will react to it?’” Releford said. “The only thing I can really tell our young guys is stay focused and do what we’ve been working on. I’m excited. Our young guys are excited. Playing our second game before that many people in that kind of environment against that kind of team, it’s good for us.”
“I think the freshmen will react pretty well,” noted frosh guard Ben McLemore, who will start along with fellow rookie Perry Ellis. Red-shirt frosh Jamari Traylor is one of squad’s key reserves. “I think everybody is ready to play. Everybody is excited. I think this game will help us in the long run.”