Madness comes early, and now Champions Classic takes centerstage
If you’ve been waiting for Tuesday night’s Champions Classic to tune into college basketball, you’ve been missing out. The event is annually the sport’s best night in November and this year's version is certainly no exception, with No. 2 Kentucky facing No. 5 Duke and No. 4 Kansas taking on No. 13 Michigan State in a doubleheader in Chicago, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only night worth watching.
Here’s a quick recap of what you’ve missed already: On Friday night, Wisconsin, which knocked off 38–0 Kentucky last April and has been to back-to-back Final Fours, lost on its home floor to the Western Illinois Wildcats. How little do you know about Western Illinois? Well, for one thing, they’re the Leathernecks, not the Wildcats. And last year, they went 3-13 in the Summit League. William & Mary, which won the Colonial Athletic Association last year, went to Raleigh and knocked off NC State by 17 points. The Wolfpack were a Sweet 16 team last year, as was UCLA, which also lost at home on Friday, to Monmouth. That same night, another NCAA team from a year ago, Georgia, was shocked at home, as Chattanooga beat the Bulldogs in overtime.
On Saturday, Radford took Georgetown to double overtime, and Rashun Davis drained a three-pointer with 1.5 seconds left to seal the win for the Highlanders and cap his 28-point performance. On Monday night, No. 25 Oregon bested No. 20 Baylor in the first Top 25 matchup in the season. But not before George Washington beat No. 6 Virginia and celebrated with the season’s first court-storm.
Four days of overtimes, buzzer beaters and upsets? It may be November, but this season is already feeling a lot like March.
Tuesday night's dual showdowns, then, look a lot like what we might see—and have recently seen—in April. Three of last year's Final Four teams will take place, and all four have a good shot at winding up in Houston in four months. Below is a breakdown of what to expect in the Champions Classic.
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Duke
Kenpom.com has the Blue Devils as the nation's No. 1 team and the Wildcats at No. 2, so this matchup may be even better on paper than it already appears. For all the talk about how similar Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari have become in their pursuit of one-and-done players, Duke and Kentucky have been relying as much on returning players as newcomers in their first two games.
In Durham, the breakout player has been Grayson Allen. The sophomore shooting guard scored 26 points against Siena on Friday and 28 verssus Bryant on Friday. He’s been to the free-throw line 18 teams already and has only missed once. He has eight assists against three turnovers. And he has thrown down some ridiculous dunks like this:
Running in the backcourt with him has been Matt Jones, a junior who many expected would be usurped by a freshman, either Derryck Thornton or Luke Kennard. Jones so far has shown himself to be a ball-hawk on defense and a steady leader on offense. Duke’s star freshman, wing Brandon Ingram, has been good but not sensational so far. He has an excellent offensive rating of 128.8 on 25.4% usage, but his three-point shot has been inconsistent, as he's made just 5-of-15 from deep. He’ll need to be a threat from the perimeter to free up space for Duke’s big men, especially against Kentucky.
In Lexington, freshman center Skal Labissiere has shown off an advanced offensive game, working in the post, shooting short jumpers and handling the ball in transition. His shot selection has been exceptional: His early effective field goal percentage (76.5) and true shooting percentage (80.5) are among the top 100 in the country. After a slow start against Albany, Labissiere was the centerpiece of Kentucky’s offense against NJIT, and he finished with 26 points on 10-of -2 shooting.
Meanwhile, his classmates, particularly Jamal Murray and Isaac Humphries, have struggled to find their shots. Instead, Kentucky has been relying more on returning big men like Marcus Lee and Derek Willis (who was so good against Albany that he got a starting nod from Calipari against NJIT). The advantage in the frontcourt seems to be with Kentucky, while the backcourt edge goes to Duke.
No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Michigan State
This will be just the second game of the season for Kansas and Michigan State, each of which won home openers on Friday fairly easily. The Jayhawks’ off-season has also been dominated by a discussion about an elite freshmen, but it has been less about how good he’ll be and more if he’ll ever see the court. Freshman big man Chieck Diallo, a consensus top-10 recruit, is still awaiting clearance from the NCAA. So although you’ll see him at the end of the bench on Tuesday, you won’t get to watch him take the court.
Nonetheless, Kansas’s backcourt looks like it could carry the team deep into March. Guards Devonte’ Graham, Frank Mason III and Wayne Selden Jr. each used more than 21.0% of available possessions in the 109-72 win over Northern Colorado, with offensive ratings of 124.1, 155.1 and 142.6 respectively. Senior big man Perry Ellis had a highly efficient 16 points on just seven field goal attempts (making five, as well as all six of his free throws), but he ceded a lot of possessions to freshman forward Carlton Bragg.
Expect some small-ball lineups on both sides of the court, as the Jayhawks tallest rotation player is 6’10” junior Landen Lucas, and Michigan State’s is 6’10” freshman Deyonta Davis. Davis’s debut for the Spartans was strong, as he scored nine points, hauled in seven rebounds and blocked four shots in the first half alone of the 82-55 win over Florida Atlantic. He became the third player in school history to get a double-double in his debut. Meanwhile, seniors Matt Costello, Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes scored in double figures. Valentine, who we projected to be a national player of the year candidate, showed off his versatility with 13 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Expect polished offenses and stout defenses lead by seasoned veterans in this one.