"Kyrie played like a veteran," said Smith after the game. "He was very mature tonight, and for a freshman to show up on this stage is huge. He doesn't play like a freshman, and he hasn't acted like a freshman."
Korie Lucious led the Spartans in scoring with 20 points off the bench while Draymond Green added 16 and Kalin Lucas 14 in a game that Michigan State can't be too disappointed with outside of the result. Of course there are some defensive issues to address for the preseason Big Ten favorites along with the consistency of players such as Durrell Summers and freshman big man Adriean Payne, but they were more than competitive (many thought they'd get blown out, using the opinion that Tom Izzo's teams are better in March than December as the basis) and played better basketball than they did at the Maui Invitational. Michigan State out-rebounded Duke 37-31 and to lose by just five when there's a free throw difference of 23 attempts (Duke's 38 to Michigan State's 15) may say a bit about their progress.
"I think we showed at times, we had some resiliency tonight," said Coach Izzo. "We had some fight in us tonight. We made big strides tonight. Not morally, this was not a moral victory. It wasn't even close to that. But we competed better, and we got down and came back against a very, I mean I think this is the best team in college basketball, I really do, and we played some dandies over in Maui."
But despite the Duke win it was the Big Ten who took the Challenge for the second consecutive season, so that means something for the league many thought to be the best conference in the country before the season started (plenty of time for the Big Ten to prove that true). But there should be no doubt where the nation's best team resides, and they could have one of the best point guards in America to boot.
Other Notable Happenings
1. Virginia Tech allows a critical non-conference win opportunity slip away.
Wednesday's home game against Purdue offered Seth Greenberg's team quite the opportunity to pick up a marquee non-conference win after their loss to UNLV in the final of the 76 Classic, and they looked to be on their way to doing just that. Then a team that the last few seasons hasn't been able to make that final move off of the bubble allowed the opportunity to slip away, falling to the Boilermakers in overtime 58-55. JaJuan Johnson got the game to overtime with a jump hook with nine seconds in regulation, and his jumper with 1:27 left in the extra session got the Boilers a critical road victory for a team that looked rather mediocre in losing to Richmond on Saturday night. Virginia Tech had no answers for the senior pivot, who finished with 29 points and had far too many touches in easy scoring position. While the Hokies do lack depth in the frontcourt they still have Jeff Allen and Victor Davila, two veteran forwards who can provide some resistance defensively. But on a night that saw their best player (Malcolm Delaney) go 2-for-18 from the field Virginia Tech couldn't find anyone else to step up in overtime, and as a result they're still looking for that big win they can hang their hat on. You don't want to say "here we go again", but you can't blame the pessimists out there if they do.
2. San Diego State beats Saint Mary's in a matchup of the two best teams in California.
The two best college basketball teams in the State of California faced off on Wednesday night at the Viejas Center and the versatile Mountain West favorites took control in the first half to win 69-55. Chase Tapley led the Aztecs with 14 points and Malcolm Thomas added 12 on a night that saw their defense pick up the slack, limiting the Gaels to 39.3% shooting from the field. Kawhi Leonard and D.J. Gay each shot 3-for-10 from the field but it says something for their depth that San Diego State was able to control the game for much of the forty minutes. Mickey McConnell shot just 1-for-6 from the field for Saint Mary's and Kenton Walker was even worse (1-for-9) as both had tough times dealing with an SDSU team that features a lot of interchangeable parts. When a Thomas or Billy White has to switch on pick and rolls or down screens they're athletic enough to handle themselves defensively on the perimeter, and this ability could give opponents fits all season. And Leonard and Gay won't shoot that poorly every night; better pick off the Aztecs when you can.
3. Not the best night for the Atlantic 10 as three contenders fall.
For all the hand-wringing over the ACC and Pac-10 to this point in the season the one league that may be of more concern is the Atlantic 10, and to say the last Wednesday was not a banner night. Temple winning at Central Michigan went from "doing what they're supposed to do" to helping the conference avoid outright disaster as Charlotte, Dayton, Richmond and Xavier all fell. No true shame in Richmond falling to Old Dominion as the Monarchs are one of the best teams in the CAA, but for Xavier to drop one at Miami (OH) and Dayton to have their 40-game non-conference win streak is not good. Charlotte has a new head coach in Alan Major, but to lose to an East Carolina team that despite their 6-2 start is traditionally a lower half team in Conference USA doesn't help matters either. Reports this morning had forward Shamari Spears on the verge of quitting the team (hasn't happened yet so hang on in regards to making that jump), and few would be shocked if he followed through given his inconsistency at Charlotte (as well as at Boston College in his first stop). But with the number of remaining opportunities to pick up marquee wins getting smaller the Atlantic 10 needs its better teams to take advantage of the chances. Rhode Island visits Providence on Saturday and Richmond is at Arizona State on Sunday, and while those aren't "marquee" games they are contests that could do serious harm come March.
Top Three Games
1. Duke 84, Michigan State 79
2. UCF 57, Florida 54 Not the prettiest game but the Knights picked up a big win to move to 6-0 under new head coach Donnie Jones. Marcus Jordan led the way with 18 points while Vernon Macklin's 20 led the way for a Gator team that shot 2-13 from beyond the arc. Interesting subplots: Coach Jones was an assistant under Billy Donovan before taking the Marshall job and had Donovan followed through on the Orlando Magic job the Amway Center (where this one was played) would be his office.
3. Butler 65, Loyola (IL) 63 This is a win that shouldn't be overlooked. Walt Gibler (ankle) was able to play for the Ramblers while Butler's Ronald Nored remained out due to concussion symptoms. So to win your league opener on the road without your point guard is a worthy accomplishment. Matt Howard and Zach Hahn scored fifteen apiece to lead the Bulldogs while Geoff McCammon's 14 led Loyola.
Three Notable Performances
1. G Kyrie Irving (Duke) 31 points, six rebounds and four assists in the Blue Devils' win over Michigan State.
2. G Darren Moore (UC Irvine) 30 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in the Anteaters' 90-82 win at San Diego.
3. G C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) 31 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the Mountain Hawks' 79-76 overtime win at Stony Brook.