A Plethora Of Future Stars On One Stage

kentuckyFor forty plus games a year, depending on the extent of the Chicago Bulls’ playoff run, the United Center plays host to the best basketball players in the world. On Saturday afternoon, it was the future stars of the NBA that took center stage.

The teams that comprised the CBS Sports Classic were filled with future millionaires. Of course, the headliner for the event was the Kentucky Wildcats.

John Calipari’s squad features six players (seven if you count the injured Alex Poythress) that are projected to be selected in the 2015 draft if they all decide to declare. Judging by their performance against the UCLA Bruins, they all are ready for the next step.

Kentucky was the definition of a well-oiled machine in Chicago. In front of a crowd of mostly their own fans, Calipari’s crew hit the ground running. Taking what was once a 24-0 lead, the Wildcats stuck it to the Bruins from the get-go.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson all are sterotypcial Kentucky players. They are the perfect blend of athleticism, height, speed, and smarts. Utilizing what has been deemed a two-platoon rotation, Calipari outcoached his counterpart, Steve Alford, in route to a 83-44 victory.

Something drastic has to happen for them to not be the eventual champions this season. This Kentucky team is too deep and possesses too much chemistry to be upset in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Coach Calipari has them believing that they are the best team in country and preaches to always play a full 40 minutes, no matter what the score is. Even while leading 41-to-7 at half, the Wildcats kept on sticking it to the Bruins, in route to a historic victory.

When asked why this team is playing with such camaraderie, Calipari did not mix words.

“It is (in part) because of the media. You cannot compare one guy on this team to another and have it affect them.”

Calipari did not want to forget to mention that even when this team struggles, as they have done on several occasions this season, they possess a mindset that will ensure they can overcome any adversity placed in front of them, even if it is created by the press.

It is difficult to point to any positives from UCLA’s performance. That is the case when your team’s play is as dismal as the Chicago Bears pass rush.

Kentucky had more BLOCKS (8) than UCLA had points (7) in the first half. The Bruins shot an unbelievably horrid 8.1% from the floor in the first half. What would you tell your players at halftime if you were head coach Steve Alford?

“None of us have ever experienced something like that” muttered Alford after the loss began to sink in.

Still, Alford was willing to look at the positives, even though it would take an archeologist to dig deep enough to discover any silver linings.

One needle in the metaphorical haystack would be the play of Kevon Looney, a 6 foot 9 forward whose versatility was on display occasionally on Saturday. The soon-to-be first round pick scored nine points and added nine rebounds against the Wildcats. Other than the guard duo of Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton scoring a combined 27 points, there was nothing that the Bruins could hang their hat on.

Looney, Alford, and Hamilton will indeed play 82 regular season games one day, but they are all unfinished products, unlike Kentucky.

Speaking of unpolished future professional players, the rosters of the North Carolina Tar Heels and Ohio State Buckeyes are filled with them. These incomplete projects were on display in the first game at the United Center on Saturday.

Other than obviously Kentucky, North Carolina had the best team top to bottom showcased during the classic. While some parts still need to be mixed and matched in order to be effective for 40 minutes, they can become dangerous come tournament time.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams is a master at making do with what he has. In typical Williams fashion, he is trasnforming a roster filled with extremely gifted, yet raw talent into a title contender. Can they eventually become top NBA prospects? Sure, but only after they work out the kinks in their game.

Thanks to the play of junior forward Brice Johnson, junior guard Marcus Paige, and swing-man Justin Jackson, North Carolina dominated two-thirds of the game. They meticulously picked apart Ohio State’s zone defense.

Kennedy Meeks dominated down low and was able to take advantage of Ohio State’s lack of presence in the paint. Factoring in Meeks’ 13 rebounds, the Tar Heels captured the rebounding battle with ease, 53-40. The trio with the most potential, Johnson, Paige, and Jackson, combined for 42 out of the team’s 82 points.

Overall, North Carolina’s defense became their saving grace as it gave the team a substantial lead early on, which paid dividends in the end.

“That’s one of the best defenses in the country” proclaimed Ohio State head coach Thad Matta. “You’re going to have to make some tough shots in order to beat those guys.”

While the game was filled with highlight reel material, it became apparent during the last five minutes of the game that these two teams still have a lot of room for improvement.

Late into the game, shoots were not falling, passes sailed over their intended recipient as if Jay Cutler was tossing them, and sloppy fouls became the norm.

The narrowed scoring gap made the game more tense in the late minutes, as the overall play on the floor lost it’s ebb and flow. North Carolina was able to pull away but not before exposing their weaknesses.

Ohio State’s flaws were on display from the start. Nobody thought that it could get worse than their 37.5% shooting, but it did as the Buckeyes shot 32.5% in the second half.

With an enormous amount of turnover from last year’s team, Ohio State is still trying to gel as a cohesive unit.

Freshman guard D’Angelo Russell is projected to be a lottery pick if he ends up being a one-and-done. While his athleticism would be a welcome addition to many NBA teams, his inconsistency shooting the ball from the perimeter is holding him, and his team, back.

A 4-for-17 shooting performance should make Russell hesitant to make the jump to the pros after this season. While his horrendous performance was a large factor in the Buckeyes 83-74 loss, he was not the only thorn in the team’s side.

If not for the Tar Heels’ own shooting struggles late in the game, Ohio State would have been run out of the building. They did not look like the number 12 team in the country but still were able to remain competitive thanks to North Carolina shooting themselves in the foot.

“I thought defensively we were pretty good, and then all of a sudden at the end we started fouling” stated Williams. “Until the very end, we didn’t make many silly turnovers.”

Playing with an edge from start to finish is what Williams will emphasize moving forward. On a team that as a whole possesses the ability to beat anybody, the players must limit extended lapses in judgment. If they can do that, there is no telling how far they can go come March.

Down the road, no one will be surprised to look back and realize how many players that participated in this event are making a name for themselves in the NBA.

That is the beauty of the CBS Sports Classic. Players get a chance to use the contest as a learning opportunity in order to polish their own game. Some are further along than others. Still, no one will be surprised to see a number of these individuals back in the United Center, on an NBA roster, in the near future.