College Basketball Expert Picks: Champions Classic and Opening Week's Best Games

Duke-Kansas, Michigan State-Kentucky, UNC-Notre Dame and Florida-FSU are among this week's top college hoops games.
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Champions Classic 2019 Duke Michigan State Kentucky Kansas

The 2019-20 college basketball season is finally here. Action kicks off on Tuesday, including the always-highly anticipated Champions Classic, which this year takes place at Madison Square Garden and pits No. 1 Michigan State with No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Kansas with No. 4 Duke.

But that's not the only opening week intrigue. Tuesday and Wednesday brings ACC action, with seven difference conference matchups set as everyone but the Blue Devils gets a head-start on league play. Friday night, believe it or not, brings a non-conference Pac-12 meeting in China, and Sunday pits in-state rivals in the Sunshine State before the week closes with an intriguing battle between Illinois and Arizona in Tucson.

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Who will win opening week's best games? Our writers make their picks for 16 matchups through Sunday:

All times are Eastern.

No. 5 Louisville at Miami (Tues., 6:30 p.m., ACCN)

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Molly Geary picks Louisville: The Cardinals had a shaky recent exhibition outing, but should have center Steven Enoch back for the opener in Coral Gables. Still, given it's so early, this is a potentially dangerous road trip against a Miami team that shouldn't be as bad as last year's group that went 5-13 in the ACC. A talented Hurricanes backcourt is led by Chris Lykes, but Louisville will counter with its own firepower in star forward Jordan Nwora and bluechip freshman Samuell Williamson.

No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 4 Duke (Tues., 7 p.m., ESPN)

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Pat Forde picks Kansas: The annual Duke rebuild won't get off to as dazzling a start in 2019 as it did last year, when Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett dunked all over Kentucky and scored 118 points. This will be a tougher task against a more seasoned opponent. The Jayhawks have star power inside (Udoka Azubuike) and at point guard (Devon Dotson), plus plenty of talent at the positions in between. The Blue Devils do have the usual influx of five-star freshmen, plus holdover point guard Tre Jones, and should be an ACC title contender when the time comes. But this is a difficult opener.

No. 20 Saint Mary's vs. Wisconsin (Tues., 9 p.m., ESPNU)

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Molly Geary picks Saint Mary's: I'm higher than most on the Badgers heading into the season, but I think this is a less-than-ideal opening matchup for them. Saint Mary's brings back the bulk of its team from 2018-19, including four starters, and one of the Gaels' strategies is cutting off perimeter shots. They ranked ninth nationally in defensive three-point rate, with opponents only getting 25.5% of their points from the arc. With Ethan Happ gone, Wisconsin will likely be a more perimeter-oriented team this season, which makes this a tricky spot. On the other end, Jordan Ford leads a dangerous Saint Mary's offense.

No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Tues., 9:30 p.m., ESPN)

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Jeremy Woo picks Michigan State: Kentucky is going to be plenty dangerous, but opening the season against a more experienced team anchored by Cassius Winston isn’t the ideal Game 1 draw. The Wildcats should be able to apply plenty of ball pressure, but will have to hit the ground running to win this, while still sorting out their personnel. Expect this to be competitive, with Xavier Tillman proving a difference-maker against Kentucky’s front line.

Notre Dame at No. 9 North Carolina (Wed., 7 p.m., ACCN)

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Pat Forde picks North Carolina: The ACC's decision to start the season with league games puts some immediate juice into the schedule. This is one of the more intriguing matchups, with the Fighting Irish looking like they can be one of the most improved teams in the nation and the Tar Heels breaking in the top point-guard recruit in Cole Anthony. North Carolina might need its mid-major grad transfers, Christian Keeling of Charleston Southern and Justin Pierce of William & Mary, to make immediate contributions. Notre Dame will welcome back versatile wing Rex Pflueger, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.

Florida State at Pitt (Wed., 8 p.m., ESPNU)

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Michael Shapiro picks Pitt: Let’s go with a minor upset in an early-season ACC tilt. The Panthers return five major contributors from last season, including 2018 ACC All-Freshman member Xavier Johnson. Florida State faces an uphill climb to kick off the season. Leonard Hamilton’s squad loses top scorers Mfiondu Kabengele and Terance Mann, and a team that struggled from three last season could regress further in 2019-20. The Seminoles are a likely tournament team for the fourth straight year after adding five-star swingman Patrick Williams. But the Panthers’ continuity should get the second year of the Jeff Capel era off to a good start.

Cincinnati at No. 18 Ohio State (Wed., 8:30 p.m., FS1)

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Pat Forde picks Ohio State: This has the potential to be one of the better non-conference series if the schools keep playing each other past this season. Both teams are riding preseason optimism: the Buckeyes beat Louisville in a private scrimmage and should be much improved offensively; the Bearcats are looking to amp up their own offense with the arrival of new coach John Brannen and transfer sharp-shooter Jaevin Cumberland to complement cousin Jarron Cumberland. Both teams should spend time in the Top 25 this season and have a shot at decent NCAA tournament seeding.

No. 11 Virginia at Syracuse (Wed., 9 p.m., ACCN)

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Jeremy Woo picks Virginia: Don’t expect this to be aesthetically pleasing on either side, but Virginia has enough shooting and size to deal with the Syracuse zone. Expect the defending champs to start their season with a win.

No. 24 Auburn vs. Davidson (Friday, 6 p.m., CBSSN)

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Jeremy Woo picks Auburn: This is just a nightmare early-season matchup for a good Davidson team. Expect Auburn’s athleticism, experience and frenetic style to make life extremely tough for Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady.

No. 16 Baylor vs. Washington (Friday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN)

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Max Meyer picks Baylor: Washington brings in two five-star freshmen along with Kentucky transfer Quade Green. But I think there’s going to be a major adjustment period for Mike Hopkins early on, especially after losing Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaylen Nowell and the best defender in college basketball in Matisse Thybulle. It’s going to take time to learn the intricacies of Hopkins’s 2-3 zone, and this Baylor team has the type of roster that can beat you in multiple different ways. I was really impressed with how the Bears overcame the season-ending injury to Tristan Clark, their best big man. Clark, Jared Butler and a couple other key rotation pieces return, and I think that returning experience will give Baylor the edge.

Arizona State vs. Colorado (Friday, 10:30 p.m., ESPN2)

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Max Meyer picks Colorado: A non-conference game featuring two Pac-12 teams in China that’s being played at 10:30 p.m. EST on a Friday night. This is my Super Bowl. And yes, this seriously counts as a non-conference game. Colorado returns pretty much everyone from a team that really found its groove to end the season in Pac-12 play. While I do think Arizona State is underrated coming into the season, McKinley Wright and Tyler Bey will be too much for the Sun Devils to handle.

Iowa State at Oregon State (Sat., 4:30 p.m., Pac-12)

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Michael Shapiro picks Iowa State: These could be two programs trending in opposite directions, at least in 2019-20. The Beavers won 18 games in 2018-19, two years removed from a 5–27, 1–17 Pac-12 record. This season’s team could make a push for the tournament with conference Player of the Year candidate Tres Tinkle entering his senior season. Iowa State could face an uphill climb in the Big 12. The Cyclones lost leading scorers Marial Shayok and Lindell Wigginton, as well as assist leader Nick Weiler-Babb. The good news for Iowa State? Sophomore Tyrese Haliburton is expected to make a jump to All-Big 12 honors, and he could be a first-round pick in June. Haliburton can carry the Cyclones in 2019-20, starting with a road tilt in Corvallis.

Texas at No. 23 Purdue (Sat., 7 p.m., FS1)

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Molly Geary picks Purdue: This is an interesting one, and actually a revenge spot for the Boilermakers after losing in Austin last December. Texas added Michigan defensive guru Luke Yaklich over the offseason, and the Longhorns' D could cause trouble for a Purdue offense that enters the season with some questions. Still, the home team deserves the edge here, at least as long as Nojel Eastern's foot injury isn't a problem. Texas's new four-star centers are going to get an immediate test from 7'3" Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams.

Oklahoma vs. Minnesota (Sat., 8 p.m. BTN)

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Michael Shapiro picks Oklahoma: Any optimism in Norman regarding a potential third straight tournament appearance is thanks to the dynamic forward duo of Brady Manek and Kristian Doolittle. Manek—a junior from nearby Harrah, Okla.—could earn All-Big 12 honors in 2010-20, and he should finish near the conference lead in scoring. Manek is a strong shooter from beyond the arc, and the 6’9” junior showed increased verve off the bounce last season. He's a legitimate isolation option. Doolittle should contain the glass for the Sooners and provide a physical presence in the paint. They'll need a strong season from the senior given a notable lack of depth. That issue will likely arise later in the season, but Manek should propel Oklahoma to victory over a rebuilding Minnesota squad on Saturday.

Florida State at No. 6 Florida (Sun., 1 p.m., ESPN)

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Molly Geary picks Florida: This is a brutal opening week for the Seminoles, who have to go on the road to an improved and hungry Pitt team before making the trip to Gainesville to face a top-10 rival. Last year, FSU destructed the Gators in the season-opener, but the only returning Florida starter from that game is Andrew Nembhard, who was playing in his first career contest. UF has a new dimension this season after adding Kerry Blackshear and five-stars Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis, and the 'Noles, while still with a lot of potential, are adjusting to some notable roster losses.

Illinois at No. 21 Arizona (9 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

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Max Meyer picks Arizona: I am a huge Brad Underwood fan, and Illinois has the coaching advantage in this one. It’s tough to go against Arizona at McHale, though, especially with the massive influx of talent Sean Miller has at his disposal. Five-star freshmen Nico Mannion and Josh Green should both be impact players from Day 1. The Wildcats return starters Ira Lee and Chase Jeter, and that should give them the frontcourt edge over the Illini. Picking up grad transfer Max Hazzard from UC Irvine was also key, especially given Brandon Williams’s season-ending injury. I think this game will be close, but Arizona edges this one out.