Champions Classic 2012: Top Performers and Grades for Entire Field

Tim Keeney@@t_keenContributor INovember 14, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 13:  Seth Curry #30 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after hitting a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats during the 2012 State Farm Champions Classic at Georgia Dome on November 13, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Imagine that. The 2012 Champions Classic was not only full of champions, but it also gave us two classics. 

Just a few days after falling victim to an upset against Connecticut in Germany, Michigan State got the night started off with an impressive 67-64 comeback victory over Kansas. It was a little ugly at times, but for the most part, the high-energy, defensively-focused battle felt like March Madness.

To cap the night off, Duke staved off a late-game rally by Kentucky to pull out the 75-68 win over the Wildcats. It was an incredibly entertaining matchup that, much like the first contest, could have very easily been a preview of the Final Four in the Georgia Dome. 

Let's take a look at all the action. 

Top Performers

Michigan State Spartans: Keith Appling, PG

Freshman Gary Harris and sophomore Branden Dawson both deserve credit here. 

Harris shot 7-of-12 for 18 points and pretty much carried the scoring load for the Spartans in the early-going. As for Dawson, it's probably just be easier to mention what he didn't do.

He didn't mop the floor. That's it.

Dawson scored 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting, grabbed four rebounds, dished out two assists and secured three steals. He guarded the wing. He guarded the post. He provided the much-needed energy. 

But it's impossible not to go with Keith Appling. 

Sure, the 19 points on nine shots is nice. So are the two rebounds, three assists and there steals. But the veteran point guard hit a huge three and followed it with a sweet drive to the hoop in the final two minutes to put Kansas away.

Clutch is as clutch does.  If Tom Izzo can consistently get games like this from Appling, the Spartans are going to be tough to beat. 

Kansas Jayhawks: Elijah Johnson

With Thomas Robinson departed to the NBA, most people have turned to senior point guard Elijah Johnson to fill the scoring void.

Thanks to foul trouble, Johnson didn't do that in Kansas' opener, but he had an impressive showing on Tuesday night against Appling and a stout Spartans defense. 

Johnson dropped 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting. He knocked down two three-pointers, pulled in four rebounds, dished out two assists and racked up three steals in 36 minutes.

That's more like it from Kansas' leader. 

Duke Blue Devils: Seth Curry

It's either Curry or Mason Plumlee. 

The big man had an impressive 18 points on eight shots to go with three rebounds, three assists, a steal and two blocks. But Curry, in addition to zero turnovers (compared to Plumlee's five), hit some important late shots when the Wildcats were fighting their way back into the game. 

Curry finished with 23 points (7-of-14, 3-of-7 from deep), three rebounds, a steal and a block.

There will be complaints that he didn't get an assist, but when the veteran Curry plays off the ball and shoots like he did here, the Blue Devils are much more dangerous. 

Kentucky Wildcats: Alex Poythress

I took a look at the box score and was surprised to learn that Alex Poythress had 20 points.

The reason for my shock? It seemed like he had at least 20 insanely powerful dunks in this one. The true freshman was absolutely all over the place. He made some smart, dangerous cuts on the baseline behind the defense. He was impossible to keep off the offensive glass (eight rebounds, five offensive).

The 6'7", 239-pound youngster can technically play both positions, but his combination of size, athleticism and pure will was downright scary on Tuesday night. Scary for other teams, that is. 

Shout-out to Nerlens Noel who somehow racked up 16 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three steals and three blocks in a fairly quiet fashion.

Team Grades

Michigan State Spartans: B+

There were some bad points for the Spartans. They often looked stagnant in the half-court offense and they turned it over 15 times.

But consider the circumstances.

MSU was just four days removed from a game in Germany, which is kind of far away. After a ridiculous amount of travel and a disappointing loss, the Spartans had the unenviable task of taking on Kansas, one of the best teams in the country.

And they won. Somehow. Again, it wasn't always pretty, but the Spartans' backcourt shot 13-of-21 (the team as a whole shot 52.1 percent) and the defense was incredibly stingy, forcing Kansas into 16 turnovers. 

Kansas Jayhawks: B

The Jayhawks really didn't play a game all that different than Michigan State. But since they lost, I'll downgrade them to a "B."

Bill Self's team played fantastic half-court defense. They racked up 11 steals and seven blocks. Travis Releford showed spurts of being the best on-ball defender in the country. Jeff Withey, as always, protected the basket well when he wasn't in foul trouble.

As the year goes on, Kansas will continue to be one of the toughest teams to score on. 

On the offensive end, the Jayhawks shot 50 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from deep. They didn't do much wrong besides the 16 turnovers and often forced shot.

Kansas, which led for most of this game before a bit of a collapse at the end, will be just fine. 

Duke Blue Devils: A-

The Blue Devils earned a solid "A" for the first 32 minutes of the game.

The senior inside-outside duo of Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry was incredibly productive on the offensive end. Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon couldn't find his shot, but he recorded six rebounds and five assists and played some high-energy defense. The team defense, which was an important question mark entering the season, did a good job slowing down the Wildcats. 

But as Kentucky began to come back from a 15-point deficit in the final minutes, Duke got sloppy on the offensive end and beatable on the defensive.

Still though, if Coach K's squad constantly puts forth efforts like this, he's got a Final Four team on his hands. 

Kentucky Wildcats: B-

For the most part, the Wildcats were outplayed. But it's important to remember that point guard Ryan Harrow was out with the flu. Without him, Kentucky had no one to really get the offense started and often struggled to get good looks.

Still, 49 percent shooting from the field and just 12 turnovers is hard to get upset with. 

Once the Wildcats started relying on the athleticism of Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress late in the game, the offensive production turned around, but it was too little, too late. 

The youth of this team was pretty apparent, but on the plus side for Wildcat fans, it was also apparent that Coach Calipari's team is going to be extremely dangerous by at least February or March, if not much sooner. 


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