Technically speaking, college basketball tipped off on Friday. Tuesday, however, will feel like the real opening night. That’s when the sixth annual Champions Classic doubleheader will take place at Madison Square Garden. In each edition of this event, the same four teams—Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State—have rotated against each other, and the games have yielded some of the most memorable moments of the season. I know you’re ready to feast on these games, so allow me to set the table and let you know who I think is going to win, and why.
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 13 Michigan State (7 p.m., ESPN)
Breaking down a matchup often comes down to timing as much as personnel. At first blush, it would seem Kentucky is getting Michigan State at the right time. The Spartans last played on Friday night in Hawaii, where they lost to Arizona on the final possession. Kentucky, on the other hand, spent the week in Lexington, crushing Stephen F. Austin and Canisius. Advantage Kentucky, right?
Wrong. First of all, playing a quality opponent is a better tune-up for another quality opponent. Second, Michigan State's loss means Tom Izzo has been in a bad mood—especially considering the final bucket came on an end-to-end dash by Arizona guard Kadeem Allen, during which Izzo’s guys played some embarrassing matador defense. You think the Spartans have been hearing about that the last few days?
So from a timing and intangible perspective, I like Michigan State. But there is also a glaring basketball reason to go with the Spartans: At the moment, Kentucky is the gang that can’t shoot straight. During their first two games, the Wildcats shot 9 for 34 from three-point range. Take out Mychal Mulder’s 3-for-5 shooting, and the rest of the team is a woeful 20.7%. The perimeter trio of freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk plus sophomore Isaiah Briscoe were a combined 4 for 20. If the ‘Cats shoot like that against weak competition at home, why should we expect them to do better in Madison Square Garden against a ranked team smarting from a loss?
To be sure, the Spartans also have some deficiencies that were exposed against Arizona. First and foremost was their carelessness with the ball. Michigan State turned it over 18 times, with junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn, senior guard Eron Harris and freshman forward Miles Bridges coughing it up four times apiece. Not only did that lead to transition baskets for Arizona, but it also turned Michigan State’s halfcourt offense into an ugly clunker. If there’s one thing Kentucky can do, even as a young team, it’s lock down and defend. So Michigan State’s execution is going to have to be a lot crisper in this one.
Michigan State is also soft in the middle thanks to injuries to the two upperclassmen who were supposed to provide that size, Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling. Can Kentucky freshman Bam Adebayo take advantage of that? Are Kentucky’s guards good enough to make sure he does? It's not quite clear, but I do believe that on Tuesday night at least, Bridges will be the best player on the floor. That’s a pretty good place to start. I’ll take it on faith that Michigan State learned some important lessons from Friday's defeat, and that its veterans will come to play—and win.
Michigan State 80, Kentucky 76
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 7 Kansas (approx. 9:30 p.m., ESPN)
Here we go again: Really good team loses tough game (this one in overtime) in Hawaii, then travels across an ocean and a continent to play another really good team that devoured two weak opponents at home (Marist and Grand Canyon). Except in this case, it’s the team that stayed home that has the injury issues. Duke’s freshman class was a major reason why the Blue Devils were the consensus preseason No. 1 team, but three of those guys are out with injuries: Jayson Tatum (foot), Harry Giles (knee) and Marquees Bolden (lower leg). All those players are forwards, and all are likely to miss the Kansas game, though there is an outside chance that Tatum will be available. Like all four teams who will descend on Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, Duke’s goal is to win the national championship. Mike Krzyzewski is not about to risk that so his team can beat Kansas in mid-November.
So yes, Kansas is a pretty easy pick here. Duke’s Grayson Allen is an uber-scorer, and it’s amazing that he is averaging 20.5 points in his first two games while basically playing point guard. (He is also averaging seven rebounds and 3.5 assists.) Freshman Frank Jackson, who is the team’s second-leading scorer while coming off the bench, has the ability to play the point, but I’m not sure he can be a fulltime quarterback this season. They are going up against an extremely veteran, tough backcourt duo in senior Frank Mason and junior Devonte’ Graham. As good as Allen is, I think it’s fair to say he will be guarded a lot harder on Tuesday than he had been during the first two games.
In the end, this game may turn on whether KU freshman forward Josh Jackson has a stellar outing or another jittery one like he did against Indiana (nine points on 3 for 11 shooting). I’m guessing that now that Jackson has his feet wet, he will be more of a factor. Both he and sophomore forward Carlton Bragg were hobbled by foul trouble against the Hoosiers. My hunch is that they learned from that and will be a little more cautious on the defensive end.
These teams are pretty evenly matched. If the Blue Devils were at full strength, I would probably give them the nod. But they’re not, which means they have less margin for error. In this game, against this team, that is a little too much to overcome.
Kansas 85, Duke 77