Champions Classic Uniquely Timed Test For Hoops Blue Bloods

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, left, and Miles Bridges talk during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Florida, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, left, and Miles Bridges talk during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Florida, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

LAWRENCE, Kan. — The biggest thing Kansas coach Bill Self wants to change about the Champions Classic is his record.

The teams? The timing? The location?

He’s good with all of it.

So are his counterparts at Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, who have been involved in the annual doubleheader pitting a quartet of college basketball’s blue bloods since its inception. But where Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari and Tom Izzo have all won at least half their games, the Jayhawks have dropped four of their six contests since the first event in 2011 at Madison Square Garden.

“It’s always nice to see how much poise we have in a pressure situation,” said Self, whose fourth-ranked Jayhawks face No. 5 Kentucky in Tuesday’s nightcap in Chicago. “I certainly anticipate it not being pretty, but I do anticipate both teams playing hard.”

Therein may be the biggest drawback of the Champions Classic.

The event has always been scheduled the first or second week of the season, which means all four teams are still trying to integrate transfers and freshmen. Most years they’ve only played one game, and for Kansas, that involved flying from Hawaii to New York in between last season.

The result is games that are often chaotic and unpolished, and outcomes that aren’t always indicative of what’s to come. Kentucky romped to a 32-point victory over the Jayhawks a few years ago and an eventual Final Four team from Michigan State was soundly beaten by Duke.

The top-ranked Blue Devils and second-ranked Spartans meet again in the opener Tuesday.

“It’s the first really marquee game for them,” Krzyzewski said of his young team, “and I just want them to enjoy the moment, to be immersed in the moment. Don’t worry about mistakes and then it’s a matter of letting them play, and if we see anything. … ‘Just settle down, man. Let’s play.'”

As it stands, the kickoff to the college basketball season happens on a Friday night, which keeps it from being overwhelmed by college football and the NFL. So by playing the Champions Classic on Tuesday night, it takes the spotlight of the sports landscape as much as can reasonably be expected.

In fact, Krzyzewski would like to see the season kick off for everybody on Tuesday, and the four teams to continue playing the Champions Classic as the marquee event of the night.

“I think it’s one of those nights that you should start the season with a game like that,” he said. “It’s a big-time doubleheader. I’m glad our four schools have gotten in it and continue to do it. It’s such a good idea.”

The timing isn’t going to change for at least the next two years, with games already scheduled for Indianapolis next season and New York in 2019. That would finish the latest contract, which the schools agreed to last year — though all of them have expressed interest in keeping it going.

There are few alternatives for changing the timing of the event.

If you were to push it later into November, you would run into the Thanksgiving holiday and many established in-season tournaments, such as the Maui Invitational. Pushing it into early December runs into college football conference championships, and late December brings bowl games. Pushing into January and conflicts arise with conference schedules, not to mention non-conference games that are already set as part of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge and Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

“The month of December is not an easy month for basketball,” Izzo said, before conceding: “Would I like a couple more games under my belt before I play that game? Yeah.”

There are other drawbacks to the current timing besides sloppy play, though. The computers that the NCAA selection committee relies on don’t forget the games, but the committee members themselves may tend to overlook them when they set the NCAA Tournament field some four months later.

But those drawbacks are balanced out by the benefits: top-level competition early in the season, while there is still plenty of time to fix mistakes, and unique visibility for the schools involved.

“It’s being talked about as the biggest night of basketball until the Final Four. I think that’s pretty good. I think there’s got to be something good to it,” Izzo said. “I’m cool with it. Whatever it is, whenever it is, wherever it is. That’s been our motto anyway.”

COMMENTS