There were college basketball games last weekend, but the Champions Classic has increasingly come to feel like the official start of the season. The Classic is a doubleheader pitting two pairs of programs with iconic coaches and some of the best players in the country. In this year’s version, staged at the United Center in Chicago on Tuesday night, Duke will take on Michigan State at 7 p.m. ET, followed by Kentucky vs. Kansas at 9:30 p.m. ET. All four of these squads are great, but it’s unclear whether they can live up to the hype they’ve generated during the preseason. Below, we highlight one question about each team heading into Tuesday’s games.
Duke: Are the freshmen ready?
Mike Krzyzewski has won with young players before, including when he had three freshmen (point guard Tyus Jones, wing Justise Winslow and center Jahlil Okafor) account for 44 of the 68 points his team scored in a five-point win over Wisconsin in the 2015 national championship game. Something similar could unfold at Duke this season. The Blue Devils bring back only 19% of their minutes from 2016–17 and they’re rolling with four frosh in their starting lineup. Point guard Trevon Duval, shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. and big men Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. all were assessed five-star ratings by recruiting services, and three of them (Duval, Bagley, Carter) have the potential to be selected in the lottery of the 2018 NBA draft. There’s a lot of talent here, but it’s not clear whether it can congeal into a cohesive whole by March—only one projected rotation member has logged more than one start as a college player prior to this season. That rotation member, senior Grayson Allen, is capable of putting up National Player of the Year-worthy numbers, but he also was the source of the tripping-fueled drama that hung over the Blue Devils during the disappointing campaign that ended with a second-round upset loss to South Carolina in the NCAA tournament last March. It’s on the freshmen to ensure Duke doesn’t suffer another early exit. Bagley, for one, has been as good as advertised: 49 points and 20 rebounds on 65.7% shooting over two games so far.
Kansas: How will the frontcourt shake out?
It’s inevitable that Kansas will play some smaller lineups this season. This offseason, the Jayhawks lost Josh Jackson to the NBA, Carlton Bragg and Dwight Coleby to transfer, Landen Lucas ran out of eligibility and William & Mary graduate transfer Jack Whitman decided to leave the program. The defections left Kansas with only three scholarship big men available for this season: sophomores Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot and freshman Billy Preston, the No. 19 prospect in the class of 2017 Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), a composite incorporating data from several services. Azubuike is a 7-foot, 280-pound force in the paint. During Kansas’s trip to Italy this summer, he came close to bringing down the basket with a two-handed dunk. But Azubuike appeared in only 11 games last season because of a wrist injury, and he committed 8.7 fouls per 40 minutes when he was on the floor. Azubuike logged a career-high 30 minutes in the Jayhawks’ 92-56 season-opening win over Tennessee State on Friday, but he’ll face far more formidable big men in the Big 12 and on Tuesday, such as projected first-round draft pick Nick Richards. A thin 4 and 5 depth chart shouldn’t keep Kansas from winning at least a share of its 14th consecutive conference championship. It’s just going to be interesting to see how Bill Self distributes minutes at those positions given his personnel.
Kentucky: Where’s the shooting coming from?
John Calipari signed another stacked recruiting class to help replenish a roster stripped bare by draft-related departures and eligibility expirations. Including Hamidou Diallo, who joined the program in January but did not play last season, the group runs eight deep, with all but two of them rated as five-stars. Yet unlike last season, when Kentucky had a lights-out shooter in its backcourt in Malik Monk, plus another floor spacer in forward Derek Willis, opponents probably won’t have to worry too much about the Wildcats’ capacity to burn them from downtown. Their lack of long-range marksmen could lead teams to pack the paint, closing off Kentucky’s driving lanes. Freshman guard Jemarl Baker, the No. 72 prospect in the class of 2017 RSCI, is highly regarded for ability to bomb from beyond the arc, but he’s expected to be sidelined for three months after undergoing knee surgery. Wing Kevin Knox, No. 10 in the class of 2017 RSCI, has been branded a 3-and-D prospect, but Knox shot only 26.9% over 16 games in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League in 2016 and 30% over 23 games in 2015, according to DraftExpress’s database. Though the Wildcats should be able to smother most teams on the defensive end and put up a lot of points even if they don’t pose a major threat from deep, it could become a problem against SEC competitors like Florida, Alabama and Texas A&M.
Michigan State: How will Miles Bridges’s role change?
Michigan State had Bridges log heavy minutes in the frontcourt last season because it was thin at power forward and center. This season, the Spartans are adding freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., the No. 9 prospect in the RSCI and a projected first-round draft pick, and veterans Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling will be available after sitting out 2016–17 with knee injuries. The added depth should lead to Bridges spending more time on the perimeter. His skill set is amenable to a position switch. Bridges is a high-level athlete who’s a load to contain on basket-attacks, he stretches defenses with his deep shooting range (38.9% on 144 attempts last season), and he’s an effective rebounder and shot blocker. Sports Illustrated pegged him as the favorite to win National Player of the Year. Watching him take on another NPOY candidate, Duke’s Allen, this early in the season will be a treat. In the Spartans’ 98-66 victory over North Florida on Friday, Bridges started alongside two other sophomore guards, Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston, plus Jackson and underrated sophomore center Nick Ward. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more potent lineup east of Tucson: there’s playmaking, scoring punch, rim-protection and glass-cleaning. It’s not hard to see why Michigan State is the only team we project to have a top-five offense and defense.