Chicago — One of the most exciting things about The Champions Classic each year is that it features four of the best programs in college basketball that typically have some of the top individual talent.
With that being the case, it might surprise you that this year’s nightcap between No. 1 Kansas and No. 16 Kentucky will feature just four players who have Champions Classic experience.
Dajuan Harris Jr. has played in it three times. KJ Adams has played in two Champions Classic contests. And Kevin McCullar Jr. got a taste of it last year, when KU beat Duke in Indianapolis.
Junior forward Zach Clemence missed last year’s game and played just 4 minutes against Michigan State as a freshman. But we know he won’t play Tuesday night, so we won’t count him on the list of players with Champions Classic experience because it’s like he won’t even be there.
On the other side, only fifth-year Wildcat Antonio Reeves, a former transfer from Illinois State and Chicago native, has at least played in one Champions Classic, a reality that gives Kansas a significant edge in both overall experience and game-specific experience.
“They’re a veteran team, older players and we’ve got young guys,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said at a press conference on Monday. “We have no idea how they will respond. I’m hoping they respond. Sometimes, they’re so young, they don’t know and they just go play well. I don’t know what to expect.”
He does, however, know what he wants to see.
“Go play loose and free and have fun and let’s see who we are right now,” Calipari added. “This is our third game. This is literally a brand-new team. We’ve shown signs of really good and we’ve shown signs of ‘oh my gosh, we have to be better than this’, which is typical.”
Kansas coach Bill Self has experienced first-hand what Calipari referenced, with young players letting it all hang out and turning in outstanding games on this massive stage. That came, among other times, back in 2018, when then-KU-freshmen Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson combined for 37 points on 9-of-15 shooting from 3-point range in a 92-87 win over Michigan State in Indianapolis.
Clearly, their performances show that experience in this game doesn’t have to be on your side to find success when the lights come on.
That’s certainly the way Self sees it.
“It'll be a very nervous time for our guys,” said Self of a KU team that features six scholarship players who will be playing in this game for the first time themselves. “Is that because of Champions or is it because (it’s the) first big game, (or we’re) playing Kentucky? All that stuff, I think, adds to it.”
For those Jayhawks who have been on this stage before — along with even bigger ones — they see the past experience as an advantage.
“They haven't had a lot of players that have played in big time games like this,” Harris said on Monday. “You know, we have a couple players that's experienced and played in big time games over their college careers. So, I think that's a big thing for us.”
Added Adams: “Having experience in big time games helps you a lot, especially the first 5 minutes, when there's a lot of stuff going on. So just trying to navigate anxieties and all that stuff while you're playing helps, and then I think me and Juan have been through a lot of situations during games, so I think we'll be able to handle whatever they throw at us.”
That last part remains to be seen, but, at least before tipoff, the Jayhawks certainly have the edge in players who have been on this stage before.
Here’s a quick look at what the four Jayhawks and one Wildcat who have played on the biggest stage college basketball has to offer in November have done with that opportunity in the past.
It's worth noting that the Jayhawks have won their last three Champions Classic games, meaning Harris, Adams, Clemence and McCullar have never experienced a loss at the event.
KU redshirt junior Dajuan Harris Jr.
In his three appearances, Harris has made 2 starts and averaged 31.7 minutes per game. He has recorded 19 assists to just 1 turnover and also has 7 steals while shooting 6-of-15 from the floor.
KU junior KJ Adams
In his two appearances, Adams has played vastly different roles. In his debut in 2021, he barely got in, playing just 3:46 to grab 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 block. A year later, as a starter, Adams played 19:50 and scored 8 points to go along with 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal and 3 turnovers. Fun fact: Adams has not missed a shot in his two previous Champions Classic appearances.
KU super-senior Kevin McCullar Jr.
McCullar’s first taste of the Champions Classic came in a starting role a season ago, when he played 29:27 and scored 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting (2-of-4 from 3-point range) to go along with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, a steal and 4 turnovers.
KU junior Zach Clemence
As we mentioned above, Clemence did play during his freshman year and he actually out-performed Adams, playing 4:23 in the KU win and scoring 7 points on 2-of-3 shooting to go along with 1 rebound and a pair of steals.
Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves
Reeves’ only appearance in the Champions Classic, after transferring to Kentucky from Illinois State before the 2022-23 season, came last year, in a loss to Michigan State in Indianapolis. Reeves played 22 minutes in the game, finishing with 5 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist and 1 turnover on 1-of-7 shooting.
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