MSU odd team out at Champions

Asked to describe the difference between his own team and the other three in Tuesday night's Champions Classic, Tom Izzo chuckled.

"We're short eight McDonald's All-Americans on two of them,'' said the Michigan State coach, whose team will face Duke in the first game of the doubleheader in Indianapolis. "We've got some Burger King All-Americans."

The twist, of course, is that some of the guys in other jerseys could be wearing Spartans green. Izzo and the Michigan State staff were in the mix for six freshmen who are suiting up in other uniforms -- Kansas' Cliff Alexander, Duke's Tyus Jones and Kentucky's Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker.

All but Booker are from Big Ten area home states. More vexing for Izzo is that Alexander and Ulis, like Jabari Parker before them, are from Chicago, usually a favorite recruiting ground for the Spartans.

"Yeah, it is hard," Izzo admitted. "But it is what it is, right? It's part of the things that frustrates you a little bit. I'll get my share."

The reality is that recruiting backyards are drawn with as much permanence as a hopscotch grid on a sidewalk. High school kids play all over the country and have little, if any, affinity for playing for their home-state favorite.

In this Champions Classic, for example, Justise Winslow and Kelly Oubre Jr. both hail from the Houston area. They played for the same AAU team. Winslow is at Duke; Oubre is at Kansas. Neither considered Texas.

It is what it is, says Izzo? Yep, that's about right.

So instead of lamenting what might have been, the Michigan State coach will try to figure out what his lineup is.

"I'd say Duke right now is probably the best team; Kentucky is the most talented," he said. "There are probably more unknowns for Kansas and Michigan State, and not as many at Kansas as there are for us."

Remember that old Sesame Street game -- one of these things is not like the other?

That's Michigan State right now. Kentucky is No. 1, Duke No. 4, Kansas No. 5 and the Spartans No. 18, and that ranking might be based more on reputation and respect for Izzo than the actual lineup.

Izzo won't argue that point. He's still trying to figure out exactly what his team is, too. He figured he'd have questions early. He lost three starters in Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling, but he didn't count on more injuries. After Band-Aiding a team with bubble gum and duct tape last season, he's down three players again right now.

Bryn Forbes has been limited with a hand injury; Javon Bess is out for at least a month after foot surgery; and Alvin Ellis is unlikely to play after rolling his ankle on a fast break early in Friday's game against Navy.

Losing Forbes hurts the Spartans' shooting. Losing Bess hurts their defense. Losing all three hurts their tempo, especially troublesome against a Duke team that breezed over the 100-point mark in each of its first two games.

That wouldn't seem the ideal way to go into a showcase event like the Champions. But Izzo actually doesn't mind.

"To me, this is awesome," he said. "It's more awesome than when you go and play an exempt tournament. This is one-on-one, just play and see what comes out of it. You get feedback about where you stand when you're playing against the best, and when you're trying to be a national program, that's the feedback you need."


1. It took exactly 80 minutes before fans and critics decided it was time to call in the infantry and savage the platoons.

John Calipari's great experiment of treating basketball lineups like hockey lines met its first resistance just two games into the season ... and it came from Buffalo. Bobby Hurley's team led by five at the half Sunday and kept it interesting until at least one media timeout into the second half, which is good enough for statewide panic in Kentucky.

By the middle of the second half, the Cats rolled out a lineup of the Harrison twins, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Karl-Anthony Towns.

That's out of order, sergeant, on the platoon thing.

So naturally, with a big game against Kansas looming in the Champions Classic on Tuesday, the question is: Will the platoons be AWOL by then?

"Somebody on my staff said do you want to stop? We're playing the way we play and we're figuring it out," Calipari said. "We're playing how we play. Now, Karl got in foul trouble. You're out. If someone else is not playing well, they'll be taken out. If a unit's not playing well, they'll be taken out."

Calipari has a luxurious problem -- too many talented players, all of whom need to be kept happy in order to be successful.

Except the coach gets paid the big bucks to make the unpopular decision.

Having two starting lineups is like the old adage of having two starting quarterbacks -- it really means you don't have one.

2. Ron Hunter has been borderline sandbagging of late, repeatedly telling his Georgia State players that Iowa State, their opponent Monday, is the best team he's coached against, good enough to not just make it to the Final Four, but win the whole thing.

He means it, too.

But his players?

"I'm pretty sure they're mad at me by now," Hunter said with a laugh.

That's because the Panthers believe they are pretty good themselves. Hot off a 25-9 season, they've got three players who won't wilt in the face of big games -- Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow, Louisville transfer Kevin Ware and University of Southern California transfer Curtis Washington -- plus an honorable-mention preseason All-American in R.J. Hunter.

"If we win, they won't consider it an upset," Hunter said.

The rest of the world will, which is why this week -- just the first full week of the season -- stacks up pretty large for Georgia State and three other very good NP5 (mid-major is no longer accurate, the BCS no longer exists, so let's go with Non-Power 5) teams:

• Toledo, which plays at VCU on Tuesday.

• Green Bay, visitors to Wisconsin on Wednesday.

• UC Irvine, playing at Arizona on Wednesday.

Here's the reality: For the big boys, a season can't be won or lost in November (witness Kentucky and Connecticut, circa 2013-14) but for the NP5 schools, the stakes are slightly higher.

How many chances do you think Georgia State, Toledo, Green Bay and UC Irvine are going to have to turn heads and pad their non-conference résumés?

This is that chance.

Georgia State drilled something by the name of Tennessee Temple in its season opener, winning by 60. Did you notice? Of course not. Will you notice if it knocks off the Cyclones? Of course you will.

"I told my guys you can't talk about being the best and then go out and get drilled,'' Hunter said. "I know they believe they can win, and they can win, but you've got to do it."

Free throws

• Holy Cross coach Milan Brown, whose team turned Harvard into the first top-25 loser of the season, is eldest of three boys. Other brothers are Morocco, now director of player personnel with the Washington Redskins; and Marseille, former hoopster at Richmond and Hampton. Clearly the Brown brothers are going places.

• The SEC might get the same number of spots in the College Football Playoff as in the NCAA tournament: two. The league wasted no time in another soft launch to the season, with Georgia (a loser to Georgia Tech), Missouri (to UMKC), Ole Miss (to Charleston Southern) and Tennessee (to VCU, a forgivable transgression since the Rams are ranked, but the 16-point margin is less so) all stumbling out of the gate. All hail Vanderbilt, winners over mighty Trevecca Nazarene on Sunday.

• Under-the-radar game to watch: Utah at San Diego State (and not just because I picked the Aztecs to get to the Final Four). Larry Krystkowiak has a sneaky-good squad with an unheralded star in Delon Wright. Worth the watch Tuesday afternoon.

• With all eyes on TaShawn Thomas at Oklahoma (he got the OK to play from the NCAA on Friday), Buddy Hield decided to upstage his teammate. He went a school-record 7-for-7 from beyond the arc Sunday against Southeastern Louisiana.

• Player/play of the week: Brian Richardson, High Point. The senior transfer from South Carolina swiped an inbounds pass with 8 seconds to go and dished to his teammate, Tarique Thompson, for the game-winner against Cal State Bakersfield. In four overtimes. In Hawaii.

And one

Holy Cross court storming ... er strolling.