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Champions Classic Preview: Which Teams Have the Edge in a Heavyweight Doubleheader?

The first night of the 2018–19 season features a special treat: the annual Champions Classic, featuring top-10 battles in Kansas–Michigan State and Duke–Kentucky.

There’s no easing into the 2018–19 college basketball season. On opening night—which has been moved up three days from its usual Friday slot—fans thirsty for college hoops will be treated to two glasses of the world’s finest water straight from a spring near Mount Fuji. This is the eighth year of the Champions Classic but the first year it will take place on the inaugural day of the season. Two top-10 matchups (including three of the country’s top four teams) featuring legendary coaches, star freshmen, and battle-tested vets will be on full display for a national audience. Never in recent memory has the season kicked off like this.

No. 10 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Kansas (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

The seasoned Spartans and reloaded Jayhawks are set to face off in the Champions Classic for a third time. Michigan State has taken each prior matchup, including a 79–73 win in 2015 highlighted by Denzel Valentine’s triple double (29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists).

But this time around, Michigan State will take on a Kansas program that’s the nation’s preseason AP No. 1 for the first time since 2009 (does the name Brady Morningstar ring a bell?).

The Jayhawks have stockpiled blue-chip recruits (Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson) and transfers (K.J. and Dedric Lawson, Charlie Moore). Alongside senior guard Lagerald Vick, 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike is back for his junior season after he posted the second-best shooting percentage in the nation since at least 1992 with a 77.0% clip from the field last year. This team is loaded.

For the Spartans, Tom Izzo welcomes back a nice chunk of know-how to East Lansing. Power forward Nick Ward pulled his name from the NBA draft and returns to the green and white for his junior season. Cassius Winston, also a junior, led the Big Ten in three-point shooting last season and dished out nearly seven assists per game. Sharpshooting senior Matt McQuaid is back, too.

This primetime season-opening matchup pits a retooled but remarkably skilled roster in Kansas against Michigan State’s steady, battle-tested unit.

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Keep a sharp eye on Kansas’s cohesiveness. In its scrimmage last week against Emporia State, the Jayhawks turned it over 22 times. Even with a rotation chock full of talent, tossing together so many transfers and newbies can lead to slow-developing chemistry. Look for an experienced Spartan unit to capitalize early.

Those newbies, however, are a significant reason why Kansas tops the rankings. Grimes, Dotson and center David McCormack—all top-30 recruits—boast NBA lottery potential. Are these guys legit? Do they have the mettle to go toe-to-toe with older, more jelled teams? The preseason consensus is yes, but we’ll find out right away—the freshmen will be thrown into the fire against the Spartans.

Now, to the vets. Zero in on the Azubuike vs. Ward matchup in the trenches. Last season, Ward ranked second in the country in fouls drawn, causing 8.8 whistles per 40 minutes. Meanwhile, Azubuike fouled out three times last season (twice in the tourney) and committed four fouls on eight other occasions. If Ward can get Azubuike in foul trouble early on, Kansas’s frontcourt could thin out quickly. If not, Azubuike will overwhelm an undersized Michigan State frontcourt.

Michigan State faithful are getting antsy—Izzo’s teams have failed to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons. That should change this year, and Cassius Winston is a primary reason why. The point guard from Detroit shot 49.7% from three-point land last year, the seventh-best mark in Division I modern history for players who fired at least 150 treys. His laser-beam shooting, keen passing skills and nagging defense will all make a crucial impact in attacking a Kansas backcourt trying to replace 2017–18 Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham.

This is an immensely intriguing season opener: A preseason No. 1 with loads of star power jumbled together vs. a veteran squad that saw Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges depart. Opening against a stingy Michigan State unit is a tough appetizer for the Jayhawks. That being said, Kansas’s crop of stars is too much for Michigan State to handle right now. Sure, some early distress might plague the new-look Jayhawks. But the Spartans will have their own troubles adjusting to life after Jackson Jr. and Bridges. Azubuike, with another year of maturity under his belt, should be able to stay out of foul trouble and dominate the paint.

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Prediction: Kansas 77, Michigan State 72

No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Duke (9:30 pm ET, ESPN)

Tuesday’s nightcap is the basketball equivalent of the 2017 college football opener between Alabama and Florida State, except it’s nearly impossible to envision either Duke or Kentucky stumbling to a mediocre season like those Seminoles did.

These aren’t just any Duke and Kentucky teams. These are the two odds-on favorites to win the national title. It’s the third meeting between these programs since 2002, all of which have come in the Champions Classic. In 2012, Duke beat a Kentucky team that wound up in the NIT. The 2015 matchup was No. 2 against No. 5, but both teams were over-ranked and neither made it past the Sweet 16.

This game is the real deal. It also represents a shift in roles; Duke is now the team relying almost exclusively on one-and-done freshmen and Kentucky has an unusual advantage in experience. Luckily for Mike Krzyzewski, his group of freshmen is unlike anything ever assembled. Four five-star players, led by what some sites considered the top three recruits in the class of 2018, will be counted on to lead the Blue Devils all year.

RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish—potentially the top three picks in next June’s NBA draft—would individually be the jewel of any recruiting class and an immediate focal point for any offense, so the challenge for Coach K will be keeping all three engaged and figuring out how they complement each other best. It’s not a bad challenge to have. Making the task easier is the presence of point guard Tre Jones, whose primary task will be setting up his superstar teammates.

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Beyond those four, proven commodities are few and far between. Sophomore Alex O’Connell will be needed to provide outside shooting, but regression from his 49% clip in 45 attempts from three a year ago seems inevitable. Junior Marques Bolden (149 points in 53 career games) will finally get his chance to start at center. Can Joey Baker, Jack White or Javin DeLaurier provide meaningful minutes? How Krzyzewski manages his bench will be a storyline to follow all season long.

What Kentucky lacks in top-five-recruit star power it makes up for in depth. Of the 10 players who could see time in John Calipari's rotation, seven are former five-star recruits (four freshmen and three sophomores). The others are two recent four-star signees and a two-time first-team All-Pac 12 player who turns 23 in a few weeks.

It starts with the nation’s best frontcourt. Grad transfer Reid Travis from Stanford is an SEC player of the year contender and the most talented senior Calipari has ever had; he’ll bring grown man strength and experience to the four spot for Kentucky. Freshman center EJ Montgomery was a top-10 recruit and has some Marvin Bagley in him. Sophomore PJ Washington was Kentucky’s third-leading scorer last year and 6'11" Nick Richards is a physical freak.

In the backcourt, sophomore Quade Green is joined by stud freshmen Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. Keldon Johnson is a slashing wing who could end up being an upgrade on Kevin Knox, and Jemarl Baker Jr. and Tyler Herro will stretch the floor with their shooting ability. This depth means Calipari has the ability to adjust his rotation on any given night, going small with Johnson at the four alongside three guards or huge with Travis or Washington at the three.

There’s no shortage of interesting individual matchups to watch in this game. Hagans and Jones will be two of the nation’s best point guards as freshmen. Bolden’s path to a breakout season gets off to a difficult start against Montgomery. And how will Calipari defend Duke’s big three? Travis could be going head-to-head against Williamson, who is four years and seven months his junior yet weighs 40 pounds more than him and will be looking to dunk on anyone in his path. A Johnson-Reddish matchup is fascinating. Kentucky’s biggest challenge will be stopping R.J. Barrett, the 6'7" guard who is the likely No. 1 overall pick next June.

The outcome may come down to who can hit more shots from outside. Herro and O’Connell should see plenty of minutes for that very reason. Ultimately, it may take Duke a while to jell, as it does with most freshmen-led teams. Kentucky, behind big days from Travis and Washington, will sneak past the Blue Devils in a thrilling opener.

Prediction: Kentucky 82, Duke 79