Paul Sullivan: Champions Classic brings high-caliber college basketball — and its highly paid coaches — to Chicago

CHICAGO — The first NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket projections were revealed Tuesday by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who has nine Big Ten teams getting in next March.

Whether any of them can break the conference’s 23-year drought since Michigan State became the last national champion in 2000 is a question that won’t be answered for another four-plus months, but Lunardi’s best bet was once again Purdue, which he rated the top overall seed over Kansas, the current No. 1 team in the AP poll.

Since we all know what Purdue does every March, that seemingly makes Michigan State the Big Ten’s best hope again. Please hold your applause.

The Spartans were in Chicago on Tuesday, playing No. 9 Duke in the first game of the State Farm Champions Classic at the United Center, while Kansas defeated No. 17 Kentucky 89-84 in the nightcap of the annual meeting of the blue blood programs.

Michigan State wound up with a 74-65 loss in the tournament opener, looking like anything but a tournament-caliber team.

What’s coach Tom Izzo’s level of concern?

“Well, if I listen to you guys, I might as well just call it a year,” Izzo said. “Level of concern? Level of concern? Level of concern? I mean, we lost the game ... It’s funny how everybody just picks out the negative things that we’re not really good at. If I’m not (doing it). But you guys are really beating me up tonight. You’re doing a better job than me.”

I usually try to avoid events that call themselves “classic.” They seldom turn out to be as advertised, and the words “classic” and “culture” might be the most overused terms in the modern day sports lexicon.

But this annual tipoff to the college hoops season at least featured three classic coaches with enviable resumes in the 68-year-old Izzo; Kansas’ Bill Self, 60; and Kentucky’s John Calipari, 64. You’ve seen them so often over the last three decades you could mute your TV and still hear them complaining about that last foul.

Unfortunately for ESPN, which televised the games, and a large crowd at the United Center, the Duke-Michigan State matchup lost a bit of its luster last week when both highly ranked teams suffered brutal upsets before the Classic.

The Tyson Walker-led Spartans, much to everyone’s surprise, lost their opener in overtime to James Madison on Nov. 6 in East Lansing, Mich., leading to a drop from No. 4 to No. 18 in The Associated Press poll.

The Spartans went 1 for 20 from 3-point range in the loss to James Madison, missing 14 of 37 free-throw attempts. In their first two games, they shot a miserable 6% (2 for 31) from beyond the arc. On Tuesday they were 6 for 19, but they couldn’t guard Duke freshman Caleb Foster, who burned them for a team-high 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting, including two backbreaking 3′s in the final minutes.

“We can’t allow someone to not miss a shot like that,” Walker said. “That’s unacceptable.”

After the loss to James Madison, Izzo said: “I don’t have a good answer why three juniors and seniors played like they played, but I also don’t care. “I’ll play some freshmen then. Let the controversy begin.”

Izzo didn’t really follow through on his threat, sticking with Walker, A.J. Hoggard and Jaden Akins for the time being. Hoggard went 1 for 8 Tuesday, and Izzo said he told the coach to bench him if he does that again.

Spartans fans can expect to see a lot of freshman Xavier Booker, Coen Carr and Joliet West’s Jeremy Fears Jr. as the year goes on, especially if the veterans continue their cold-shooting start. Izzo, meanwhile, grew crotchety when asked about his 3-14 record against Duke. He took the blame but said, “there are not many people in our league that will play them 15, 16, 17 times.”

“I deserve what I’m getting,” he said. “Ask me the question, ‘How is your team?’ I think we have a damn good team. I really do. We haven’t played very good. We’re going to play good. Why am I 3-14? I’d like to know what their record is against a bunch of other people. Give them credit. They’re good. Give me blame, because I’ve had different players and still lost. So it’s got to be the coach.”

Izzo admitted he didn’t like the question.

“But I’m playing them,” he said. “And guess what? If I ever leave this fricking place, I’m going to play them again.”

Izzo, who turns 69 in a few months and is entering his 29th season, is one of those old-school coaches who can get away with criticizing his players in public for underachieving, almost like he’s been grandfathered in. But if the media criticizes the program they’re “too negative.”

Izzo has only known one way of doing things, and has been pretty successful at it, so why stop now?

Is it any wonder the Gen Z kids love playing for Izzo? How else do you develop that thick skin needed for the real world?

Duke, of course, is coached by local high school legend Jon Scheyer, now in his second year of replacing a national legend in Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in college basketball history. Scheyer guided Duke to a 27-9 record in his rookie season, falling to Tennessee in the second round of the tourney. The Duke alum gave him a mulligan but will be less forgiving the next time it happens. He has another loaded team led by Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell, but doesn’t have a bona fide star in the Zion Williamson mode.

Maybe Foster can be the one.

For only the second time since retiring, “Coach K” was in attendance Saturday at Cameron Indoor Arena when the Blue Devils were upset by Arizona. Krzyzewski understandably wanted to give Scheyer some space, but chose an inopportune time to return, watching former North Carolina star Caleb Love trolling the Cameron Crazies like it was March instead of early November.

When Duke starts getting trolled in its own iconic lair, you know the college basketball world has gone completely mad.

Kansas came in as the undisputed star of the Champions Classic, and feature a fresh retread in Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, who has the personality — and talent — to suggest he was destined to be a Jayhawk from birth.

Self just signed his second “lifetime” contract to remain Jayhawks coach, getting $53 million over the next five years. That moved him ahead of Kentucky’s Calipari, whose reported $44 million deal over five years was previously tops. But many Kentucky fans are calling for Calipari’s head after a 12-loss season in 2022-23 that followed a loss to 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s in their NCAA Tournament opener in ’22.

The transfer portal has forever changed the college basketball scene, but the money train never stops chugging along for the elite coaches.