CHICAGO — It’s only the second week of the men’s college basketball season and there were a pair of high-profile matchups Tuesday at the United Center for the State Farm Champions Classic.
In the first game, No. 9 Duke defeated No. 19 Michigan State, 74-65. It was a much-needed win for Duke after a loss at home to No. 12 Arizona. Freshman guard Caleb Foster was the difference maker for the Blue Devils, scoring 16 second-half points (18 points total) and going 4-for-5 from 3-point range.
“What Caleb did tonight, he won us the game,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said after the game. “It says a lot about him, as a freshman, being in this environment, in this moment, and not just the points, 18 points is great, his defense, his rebounding, his passing. I just thought it was a big-time response.”
In the second game, No. 1 Kentucky edged out No. 17 Kentucky in a back-and-forth, second half battle. The Jayhawks were down by 14 points with 16 minutes left in the game and went on a 9-0 run, led by 7-foot-2 senior Hunter Dickinson. His presence in the lane was felt both on offense and defense as he finished with a game-high 27 points and added 21 rebounds, a new Champions Classic record.
“I don’t think I ever had a 20-20 before,” Dickinson said after the game. “We have a really unselfish team that’s more than willing to give you the ball and it helps a lot.”
Scattered throughout the arena were several NBA scouts and executives from all 30 teams. The Champions Classic has always been a great benchmark for NBA prospects, particularly the freshmen players that are projected one-and-done talent. Scouts are eager to see which players rise to the occasion on such a big stage to kick off the season.
Yahoo Sports takes a look at eight top performers and players NBA scouts will be watching closely this college basketball season.
Caleb Foster, Duke
What a night for the 6-5 freshman guard. In the loss to Arizona, Foster only played 13 minutes and was held scoreless. Tuesday night was a completely different story and he bounced back in a huge way.
“My mindset was just to be ready when Coach called my name,” Foster said. “Before the game, my teammates and my coaches were just telling me to be ready. I feel like I work hard for this moment, it’s a moment I’ve dreamed of, and so, yeah, just coming in and be ready.”
Foster definitely had the hot hand in the second half and closed out the game with a corner three with under two minutes to go, silencing the Michigan State fans. Foster was a five-star recruit in high school and was a great shooter during his high school career. After he hit back-to-back 3s early in the second half, the defense extended and it opened up the lane for Foster to convert on a two-dribble pull-up at the elbow. Defensively, he was keeping his man in front of him, crashing the boards and leading the break, only committing two turnovers in 29 minutes.
Hunter Dickinson, Kansas
Dickinson played his first three years at Michigan before transferring to Kansas for his final college season. Kentucky fans (and probably Michigan State fans that stayed for the second game) booed Dickinson every time he touched the ball in the first half and Dickinson looked unfazed. Kentucky tried everything it could to stop Dickinson on the block but he found ways to scoop shots around the rim or knock down jumpers from mid-range. He has great footwork for a player his size and good hands, catching tough passes through traffic or hitting little hook shots on both sides of the basket. He’s the first player to record 20 points and 20 rebounds against Kentucky in the last 25 seasons.
“He’s a really good player,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said of Dickinson. “What he does is he takes pressure off everybody else by having everybody else focused on him. So that’s a big bonus.”
Rob Dillingham, Kentucky
Dillingham, a freshman guard, is looking like the best passer in college basketball early on and was the difference maker on offense to give the Wildcats a seven-point lead at halftime. He had 16 first-half points (including four 3-pointers) and is so incredibly quick in the lane. He gets to the rim with ease and uses his body well with contact. Dillingham finished with 18 points in 16 minutes of action.
Kentucky had the No. 1 recruiting class coming in this year and many questioned if Dillingham and D.J. Wagner could co-exist in the backcourt together. Both players are ball-dominant guards and elite playmakers. There doesn’t appear to be any issues early on in the season with both players comfortable playing off the ball when they’re on the court at the same time.
Tyrese Proctor, Duke
Proctor elected to return for his sophomore season and looks physically stronger and more comfortable in the offense. After averaging 9.4 points per game last season and coming off the bench, Proctor is starting and led at the point for the majority of the first half. His handle is tighter, committing zero turnover in 38 minutes, and his first step off the dribble difficult to defend. Proctor has great size at 6-5 and a high release on his jumper, connecting on 1-for-3 from behind the arc. Proctor is a projected lottery pick with some projecting his inside the top five. Proctor finished with 13 points, six rebounds and six assists.
Kyle Filipowski, Duke
Filipowski, a 7-foot center, is moving incredibly well after having double hip surgery last spring. Duke primarily runs the offense through Filipowski, whether that’s in a pick-and-roll option or a pin-down screen for the mismatch seal in the post. He had a couple easy baskets early on while slipping the screen when the defense fought over the top, and he hit a tough turnaround jumper in the short corner late in the first half.
Filipowski’s 3-point shot is still an area of development. He’s definitely not afraid to shoot the 3-ball, attempting four 3-pointers Tuesday night, but he unable to connect. Filipowski is a projected late-lottery to mid-first-round prospect and finished with 15 points and eight rebounds in Duke’s win.
Kevin McCullar Jr., Kansas
McCullar Jr. finished with a triple-double (12 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) and it was only the second triple-double in Champions Classic history and only the third in Kansas history. The 6-7 senior guard is a seasoned vet on the Jayhawks team and efficiently ran the offense and made some incredible reads on the wing. At one point in the second half, McCullar Jr. led the break and threw a mid-court alley-oop to KJ Adams to cut the deficit to four points. Self and his staff do a great job at developing guards that elect to stay all four years and McCullar Jr. could be the next one up in that category. He’d be following in the footsteps of Jalen Wilson (drafted by the Brooklyn Nets in June) and Ochai Agbaji (drafted by the Utah Jazz in 2022).
Adou Thiero, Kentucky
In his second year at Kentucky, Thiero’s role has significantly increased. The sophomore guard and Dillingham got the Wildcats off to a hot start with Thiero cutting well off the ball, rotating on the perimeter off the drive, and finishing through contact. At 6-8, he adds some length in the backcourt and can guard positions 1-through-4, sometimes holding his own on the switch against Dickinson. Thiero finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds (after only averaging 2.3 points and 10 minutes last year) and only one turnover in the Wildcats’ loss.
Malik Hall, Michigan State
Hall had the daunting task of guarding Filipowski the entire game and made it difficult for him to get anything off the dribble in the second half. The 6-8 senior showcased a polished offensive game on the block and would finish in a variety of ways whether it was a hook shot over Filipowski, a spin move in the lane or stepping into 3-pointers in the pick-and-pop situation (he went 2-for-4 from deep). Hall finished with 18 points and three rebounds and if he shows consistency in his 3-point shot this year, he could get some interest from NBA teams in a draft that is wide open.
Additional notes on top freshmen players
The Blue Devils have four guards they rotate in the backcourt and even though Tuesday wasn’t freshman Jared McCain’s night, he’s still a player NBA scouts are watching closely this year and could be a vital 3-point threat as the season progresses. McCain went scoreless in Duke’s win and only played 16 minutes.
Justin Edwards and D.J. Wagner had an off-game for Kentucky. Edwards, a 6-8 wing, didn’t connect on a single field goal going 0-for-6 from the field and 0-for-3 from 3-point range. Wagner, one of the top high school players coming into the season, shot 1-for-11 from the field and 0-for-3 from deep.
Reed Sheppard was productive off the bench for Kentucky. He hit two early 3-pointers in the first half and was on the court when the game was on the line in the final minutes. He went 3-for-4 from 3-point range and finished with 13 points and added four steals in 15 minutes on the court.
Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson has had a slow start to the season after entering his freshman year with some draft buzz. He’s a versatile combo guard at 6-3 and appears to be taking a little extra time to adjust to the pace of the college game. Jackson finished with seven points and two assists in 24 minutes.
Coen Carr, a Michigan State forward, is one of the most athletic forwards in this freshman class. He only scored two points in the Spartans’ loss but the basket came off a backdoor cut for an alley-oop dunk where his head was nearly at the rim. Expect some flashy moments from Carr throughout the season.