No. 3 Kansas justified its lofty preseason ranking on Tuesday night by opening the 2021-22 college basketball season with an impressive 87-74 victory over Michigan State in the Champions Classic. The Jayhawks got a career-high 29 points from senior wing Ochai Agbaji and thrived in transition as they forced 16 Michigan State turnovers while adding a quality early win to their resume.
Agbaji and Arizona State transfer Remy Martin combined to score 20 straight points for Kansas early in the second half as the Jayhawks turned a 39-32 halftime lead into a double-digit advantage. The Spartans kept pace with 3-point shooting early in the half but soon ceded to the hot-shooting Jayhawks. After Michigan State cut the deficit to 12 with 4:44 remaining, Agbaji slammed the door again with a dunk off an inbounds pass from Dajuan Harris.
Martin finished with 15 points — all coming in the second half — to compliment Agbaji as the duo showed why they were both ranked among the top 20 in the annual CBS Sports Top 100 And 1 players ranking. Michigan State does not have a clear superstar yet, and that was evident Tuesday. Sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard led Michigan State off the bench with 17 points, but the Spartans got few other contributions from their backcourt.
Transfer guards take divergent paths
A key concern at halftime for both teams was the absence of contributions from their lead guards. Michigan State’s Tyson Walker, a Northeastern transfer, didn’t score in the first half and played just two minutes with two turnovers and one assist after picking up two fouls. Martin didn’t even take a shot in the first half and committed two turnovers.
Both players are expected to be key contributors this season, and their collective absence from the box score was a surprising first half development. But Martin turned it on in the second half to help spark the Jayhawks. Walker, meanwhile, stayed quiet and finished with two points, three assists and three turnovers. He attempted just three shots in 20 total minutes and ceded much of the playmaking to Hoggard.
It’s just a one-game sample size, but Hoggard made a compelling case to be in the starting lineup when the Spartans host Western Michigan on Friday.
Kansas shows depth
The Jayhawks deployed 11 players, and that didn’t include returning starter Jalen Wilson, who is suspended for the season’s first three games. For a team that struggled with depth last season, it was an encouraging sign. One of the more impressive bench performances came from true freshman Zach Clemence. The top-rated player in Kansas’ 2021 signing class logged just four minutes, but he made them count.
A 6-foot-9 power forward, Clemence flashed his range and his athleticism with a made 3-pointer highlighting his seven-point outing in the first half. He also collected a couple of steals and three quick fouls during his brief time on the court. Freshman guard Bobby Pettiford also looked like a surefire contributor with five points, two assists and two rebounds in 11 minutes.
Kansas coach Bill Self will likely shave the rotation down at some point, but Tuesday’s performance suggested this team is well-equipped to survive potential injuries and the other rigors of the season.
Michigan State’s athleticism problem
The Spartans had no answer for Agbaji on the perimeter. While freshman shooting guard Max Christie did some nice things in his debut by finishing with nine points, he and senior wing Gabe Brown combined to go 7-of-19 from the floor and struggled to attack the basket.
While the Spartans have several quality bigs that can present matchup problems when playing together, that works both ways. Michigan State looked sluggish at times, which was evidenced in Kansas’ 20-11 edge in fast-break points. The Jayhawks also dunked six times versus just one for Michigan State as the Jayhawks thrived both in transition and on set plays.