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Champions Classic preview: three questions to consider

Adreian Payne, Michigan State SpartansAdreian Payne's Spartans could be the first -- and possibly only -- team to beat Kentucky.

Four of the nation’s top five teams (AP No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State; No. 4 Duke vs. No. 5 Kansas) will convene at the United Center in Chicago Tuesday night for one of the most highly anticipated non-conference events in recent college basketball memory. Teams this good just don’t play each other this early in the season. (The last No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in college basketball pitted John Calipari’s top-ranked Memphis team against Tennessee in February 2008). If the Champions Classic is even half as entertaining as the competing teams suggest it will be, college basketball fans are in for a real treat. Here are three storylines to track for tonight’s massive doubleheader.

Which individual matchup are you most excited for?

The easy answer is Duke’s Jabari Parker vs. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins. Both players were ushered into this season with massive hype. Both players are ranked in the top four (per Rivals) of one of the greatest recruiting classes of the past decade. Both players are expected to be top five picks in the 2014 NBA draft. Watching Parker and Wiggins square off Tuesday night -- even if they aren’t guarding one another for most of the game -- will be fascinating. The fact the game is in Chicago, Parker’s hometown, where he became something of a local legend while leading Simeon Career Academy to four consecutive state championships, adds another layer of intrigue. That’s the individual matchup everyone is looking forward to.

For the sake of argument, here are a few others to watch out for. Kentucky’s Julius Randle, who through two games is averaging 22.5 points and 14.5 rebounds, has proved nigh unstoppable when attacking the basket. But it’s unlikely he’ll have such an easy time with Michigan State senior Adreian Payne patrolling the paint (Payne's 5.6 block percentage was among the best 165 players in the country last season, according to Kenpom.com). Or what about Kentucky freshman Andrew Harrison, a perfect fit at point guard for Calipari’s dribble-drive motion offense, trading jabs with Spartans’ point guard Keith Appling? There will be plenty of important individual matchups to track Tuesday night, but it will be hard to keep your eyes off the most highly anticipated one: Wiggins v. Parker. How long they do end up guarding one another is beside the point, really. This matchup is about which freshmen is ready to seize his chance on the big stage with a masterful individual performance.

How will Kentucky’s freshmen handle an experienced Michigan State team?

Fans and media members speculated over the summer about whether Kentucky could go undefeated this season. Even Calipari threw around the topic, saying at Kentucky’s media day in October: “For eight years I’ve said that before I retire I’d like to coach a team that goes 40-0.” Given all the talent Calipari had recruited to Lexington -- six McDonald’s All Americans, three players ranked No. 1 at their respective positions, according to Rivals -- the notion didn’t seem crazy. The 2011-12 national championship would have finished the regular season with a perfect record, were it not for  target="_blank">Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating three at Assembly Hall in December. If that team came really close to winning all of its games, this one could win all of its games, it seemed. The most interesting part about this discussion, the part many observers seemed to conveniently ignore, was that before going 40-0, Kentucky had to get to 3-0.

That meant the Wildcats had to beat a Michigan State team that many consider the best in the country (the Spartans received 22 first-place votes in the latest AP Poll) on a neutral court. The Spartans may not have a group of five-star freshmen on their roster, but they do possess plenty of something Kentucky has only sparingly: experience. Payne and Appling are seniors. Forwards Branden Dawson and Alex Gauna and guard Travis Trice are juniors. Preseason Big Ten player of the year Gary Harris, guard Denzel Valentine and forward Matt Costello are sophomores. These players have endured tough conference road games and high-pressure NCAA Tournament contests. Kentucky’s freshmen have played against UNC-Asheville and Northern Kentucky at home. The Wildcats dominated both opponents, but it remains to be seen how this freshmen-heavy group will fare in what should be a close, hard-fought game. Will they tighten under pressure? Are they ready to face a team this talented and experienced, this early in the season? I’m not quite sure, but I can’t wait to find out. And if Kentucky does overcome its lack of experience to beat Michigan State, there should be some more clarity regarding the question everyone’s been asking all offseason: Will this year’s Wildcats be more like the 2011-12 national championship team, or the group that lost in the first round of the NIT last season? 

Can Kansas exploit Duke in the frontcourt?

Duke has played just one game, but it doesn’t feel premature to say the Blue Devils will be one of the most entertaining teams in the country this season. The biggest reason is obvious: Parker. Though major recruiting websites don’t have him ranked No. 1 in the 2013 class, Parker is widely viewed as the most polished scorer among this year’s freshmen. Watching him play under Coach Mike Krzyzewski will be exciting on its own. What’s really going to make Duke appointment viewing pretty much every time it steps on the court this season, though, is the style the Blue Devils are expected to play. Coach K is renowned for his ability to devise offense that accentuates the strengths of his players. Duke doesn’t have a true post presence on its roster. It has a group of highly skilled guards and wings, players who can score in a variety of ways: off the dribble, spotting up, you name it. As such, you probably won’t see the Blue Devils running their offense through a big man this season. With this group of players, Duke is likely to run, run, run, and score plenty of points in the process. On Friday against Davidson, a good mid-major program with an esteemed coach in Bob McKillop, Duke scored 111 points on 71 possessions in a 34-point rout.

Not every game will be so easy for the Blue Devils. Especially not Tuesday night’s matchup with Kansas, who not only boasts talented guards and wing players like freshmen Wayne Selden and Wiggins, but also formidable big men such as sophomore Perry Ellis, freshman Joel Embiid and graduate transfer Tarik Black. The Jayhawks should be able to use their advantage in the frontcourt to pound the ball inside against Duke, which presents an interesting question for the Blue Devils: Who will guard Kansas’ bigs? Parker, who spent time guarding Wildcats forward De’Mon Brooks, the preseason Southern Conference player of the year, is expected to match up with Ellis, with Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood lining up against Wiggins. Starting “center” Amile Jeffeson (he’s undersized at 6-foot-9, 210-pounds) played only 11 minutes against Davidson, but he may be called upon more frequently Tuesday night if Kansas uses big lineups. Or perhaps 7-footer Marshall Plumlee, who played five minutes against Davidson, will see more court time to help counter Black, Ellis and Embiid. However Duke plans to guard Kansas, it could require Coach K to tweak the up-tempo, small-ball lineups this roster seems best fit to play.
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