Champions Classic preview: Coach K's talented Duke Blue Devils face off with Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans; then John Calipari and No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats take on Bill Self and No. 5 Kansas.
The first big event on college basketball's nonconference calendar comes Tuesday night in Indianapolis with the Champions Classic. Now in its fourth year, this event has already seen each of the four teams square off against each other once, and we are back to the original matchups we first saw in November 2011 at New York's Madison Square Garden. That night, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke became the winningest men's Division I coach of all time when his Blue Devils beat Michigan State 74-69. Coach K faces off against the Spartans' Tom Izzo for the ninth time tonight, having gone 7-1 against him to date. The nightcap features Kentucky and Kansas, two two-five teams that are among the most talented in the nation. Here's what to expect:
One of the great things about the Champions Classic -- and there are many -- is that the games not only feature Hall of Fame-caliber coaches and All-America-caliber players on teams that are annual national title contenders but also games that are themselves often great theater. In its first three years of rotating matchups, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State have combined to play six times with an average margin of victory of fewer than seven points per game.
Expect this one to top that.
It’s not that Michigan State is bad. It’s just that Duke is very, very good, and if the first weekend of the season is any indication, the Blue Devils are much closer to being in midseason form than the Spartans are. Duke blitzed Presbyterian and Fairfield by 69 and 50 points, respectively, while Michigan State struggled to beat an undermanned Navy team, albeit in a true road game, by five.
The Blue Devils are young and extremely talented, with four freshmen -- Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen and Tyus Jones -- among their five leading scorers. We’ll get our first look tonight at how all those freshmen fare against comparable talent, but if Duke continues to shoot anywhere close to 47 percent from three-point range this season, as it has so far, this will be extremely difficult team for opponents to guard against.
For Michigan State, senior guard Travis Trice bailed the Spartans out with 25 points against the Midshipmen, but that was more than twice as many as any of his teammates. The Spartans will need at least one other player -- forward Branden Dawson is the most likely candidate -- to shoulder some of that scoring burden, because as much as Izzo likes to rely on defense and rebounding, the Blue Devils probably have too many options to score and too much size and athleticism to let Michigan State play the game it wants to play. -- Ted Keith
Duke 85, Michigan State 72
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Kansas
This is by far the best matchup of the admittedly early season. Kansas has played only one game, a 10-point victory last Friday over UC-Santa Barbara, a potential NCAA tournament sleeper, at home. Head coach Bill Self didn't start any of his prized freshmen in the game; in fact, forward Cliff Alexander only played 12 minutes and guard Kelly Oubre played just four. The Jayhawks will need more minutes and bigger contributions from them considering the talent of their opponent.
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Kansas doesn't have a player taller than 6-foot-10. It'll be largely up to Alexander and junior forward Perry Ellis (both 6-foot-8) to hang in the post with Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein (7-foot), Dakari Johnson (7-foot), Karl-Anthony Towns (6-11), Trey Lyles (6-10) and Alex Poythress (6-8). When Kansas is forced to play small ball to get their big guys some air, the strength of Kentucky's depth will shine.
The big question with Kentucky continues to be its platoon system. Tonight, in the Wildcats’ first true test of the season, we’ll see how willing John Calipari is to stick with it. If there are going to be grievances over lack of minutes before the conference season, it’ll be tonight when there are sure to be countless NBA scouts on hand eager to get an in-game look at Kentucky’s nine McDonald’s All-Americans as well as the talent on the other three teams, especially the freshmen on Duke and Kansas.
A less known freshman who could make a big impact tonight is Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis. He’s a true point guard who will earn minutes this season based on his ability to distribute. Against Kansas’ smaller lineup, Ulis could get in the game often. Expect the Wildcats talent – and size – to be too much for the Jayhawks. -- David Gardner
Prediction: Kentucky 85, Kansas 70