If the Champions Classic featured a consolation game, Kansas and Michigan State could have met nearly two weeks ago in Indianapolis.
On the same night that Kansas was wiped out by a Kentucky freight train, Michigan State fell to Duke on the same floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It was two proud programs, taking some early-season lumps on a national stage. Just 12 days later, No. 11 Kansas and No. 20 Michigan State can see how far they’ve come when they face off at noon Sunday in the championship game at the Orlando Classic.
“That’s what we came here for,” junior forward Perry Ellis said. “We’re excited.”
This is not the same Kansas team that flopped against the nation’s No. 1 team at the Champions Classic. The Jayhawks’ freshmen have tucked three more games under their belts, and freshman power forward Cliff Alexander is slowly progressing into an impact performer in the paint. After scoring a career-high 16 points off the bench in Friday’s victory over Tennessee, Alexander is now Kansas’ second leading scorer (10.4 points per game) and rebounder (5.6) despite being just sixth on the team in minutes.
But even now, Kansas coach Bill Self is still learning about his team. In the days after a wake-up call against Kentucky, Self put an emphasis on running offense with a purpose — with more focus on the little details. So far, the results have been promising.
After shooting just 30.2 percent in their first two games, including an 11-for-56 performance against Kentucky, the Jayhawks, 4-1, are shooting 51.9 percent in three straight victories. They reached Sunday’s championship by handling Rhode Island 76-60 on Thursday before pulling away late against Tennessee in an 82-67 win.
“If you take away (the season opener against) Santa Barbara, which we didn’t shoot the ball at all, and you take away Kentucky, we’ve actually looked pretty good offensively,” Self said. “But you don’t do that; you don’t take away certain games. You got to look at the whole package. I think that we’ve been above average since the Kentucky game, but still not good enough.”
In Michigan State, 5-1, Self has an ideal opponent to measure his team’s November progress. The Spartans are in rebuilding mode after losing standout big-man Adreian Payne and starting point guard Keith Appling. But Michigan State will still feature the usual attributes and characteristics of a team coached by Tom Izzo: Toughness, rebounding and points in transition.
“With all his teams, you have to slow them down and stop transition and then you have to somehow control the defensive board,” Self said, “and then you have to defend the (three-point) arc. So there’s a lot of things you have to do.”
The Jayhawks last faced Michigan State at the 2012 Champions Classic, falling 67-64 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. In all, Self is 4-6 against Izzo, including a 1-3 record during his 11 seasons at Kansas. The Jayhawks last beat Michigan State on Nov. 25, 2003; they also suffered two losses during the 2008-09 season, including a 67-60 loss in the Sweet 16.
“I enjoy playing against Tom’s teams,” Self said. “It’ll definitely make us tougher moving forward.”
After the Jayhawks‘ victory over Tennessee on Friday afternoon, the Kansas players enjoyed an evening at Disney World while the KU staff studied film and scouted Michigan State during the Spartans’ semifinal victory over Marquette. By Saturday afternoon, the Jayhawks had practiced at a local high school and were back to thinking about basketball.
When Kansas arrived in central Florida earlier this week, Self spoke about the importance of winning an early-season tournament. Kansas hasn’t won a holiday tournament with an eight-team field in 15 years, and when the Jayhawks stepped foot in the HP Fieldhouse at Disney, that fact wasn’t lost on Self.
“We’ve played in these tournaments and done pretty well, but it would be nice to get a quality win,” Self said. “Just like Michigan State — I can’t speak for Tom, but they’d like to get a quality win, too. It’d be nice for both programs to get a quality win this early in the season.”
No. 11 Kansas vs. No. 20 Michigan State
Marvin Clark Jr.
▪ WHEN/WHERE: Noon Sunday at HP Field House in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
▪ TV/RADIO: ESPN; KCSP (610 AM)
▪ ABOUT MICHIGAN STATE (5-1): The Spartans advanced to Sunday’s Orlando Classic championship game by defeating Rider in the opening round and Marquette in the semifinals. Junior guard Denzel Valentine drilled six three-pointers and scored 25 points against Marquette. As a team, Michigan State is shooting 43 percent from three-point range and is quite reliant on outside shooting. On the season, Michigan State has scored 38.1 percent of its points on threes, which ranks 23rd in the country. The Spartans have won four straight since falling to Duke at the Champions Classic. Michigan State freshman Marvin Clark is a Kansas City native who spent time at Blue Springs High School before finishing his career at Sunrise Christian Academy outside of Wichita. While Clark has been a surprise starter, senior forward Branden Dawson, who averaged more than 11 points per game last year, has come off the bench during the first two games of the tournament.
▪ ABOUT KANSAS (4-1): Bill Self said Saturday that he would stick with the same starting lineup for the fourth straight game. Freshman wing Svi Mykhailiuk will start alongside Frank Mason and Wayne Selden in the backcourt, while sophomore forward Landen Lucas will receive his fourth career start alongside Perry Ellis. Self believes Mykhailiuk, who is just four of 18 from three-point range, can be an impact outside shooter. “He hasn’t shot the ball good yet — like he’s capable,” Self said. “He’s capable of going out and making five in a row. But I think he’s played pretty good.” Self is also hopeful that junior forward Jamari Traylor breaks out of a minifunk; Traylor had three turnovers and one point in 12 minutes against Tennessee. “He really has been probably as consistent a performer as we’ve had all year,” Self said. “But I don’t think he’s played quite as well since he’s been down here.”
| Rustin Dodd, email@example.com