The Champions Classic Preview

Tonight is a big night for college basketball as we start  to get out of the warm up, cupcake schedules, and get into some real competitive action. This evening Duke (-2) will take on Michigan State, and Kansas (-4.5) will take on Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Chicago, Illinois at the the United Center. Game tip-offs are 7:00 and 9:30 pm.

I wanted to take a quick minute this morning to break down both games, and also make my predictions for anyone who is planning on putting some money down. Through the first four days I am 6-2 in straight bets ATS. *Self high-five*

Duke vs Michigan State

This game will be the better of the two in my humble opinion. Michigan State has a bunch of sophomores who have played together for over a year which includes Miles Bridges, who most would agree is the pre-season player of the year. Duke has last year’s pre-season player of the year in Grayson Allen, along with possibly the most talented freshman class ever assembled. Some would say the Fab Five was the greatest class ever, but according the NCAA, that team never existed.

Hold on while I roll my eyes and make a jerk-off motion.

So the front court match-up in this game is going to be legendary,  I expect Bridges to be matched-up with Marvin Bagley III, both players are averaging a double-double early on against pretty week competition, but a double-double is still impressive. Nick Ward will no doubt match-up with Wendell Carter Jr. on the block which could get real interesting when the fight for position begins. Ward was underwhelming on the glass in MSU’s first game this season, only snagging two rebounds, but Michigan State also has 5 star freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., who had 13 rips in his first college game.

While both teams are deep and filled high level recruits as far as star rankings are concerned, I like the Spartan’s front court depth with Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling a bit more than the Blue Devils with Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden at the moment. The former were two who were both injured last year, but are well traveled senior leaders, while both DeLaurier and Bolden haven’t had much impact/experience in games of this magnitude.

I give Michigan State the advantage in the front court. They have the depth and experience that gives them an edge when the talent levels are basically the same. Duke could be in trouble if Bagley has to match up with Jackson, because I don’t think anyone else in the Blue Devils front court can guard Bridges, who can score from all over the court.

In the back court Duke has a fairly obvious advantage. I am still not completely sold on Michigan State sophomore Josh Langford after a pretty underwhelming freshman campaign, though word is that he was suffering from a nagging injury most of the year which has fully recovered from. He did look decent in the opener, but I am going to need to see it against a team at a level higher than North Florida to be convinced he has realized his potential.

Cassius Winston against Trevon Duval is kind of a wash for me. A lot of people still question Winston and his capabilities, but I think they are really splitting hairs. The advantage for Duke is Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. The wing duo have combined to average 37 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game through two games, and are a combined 17-28 from deep. Alex O’Connell has also been able to give the Blue Devils some somewhat unexpected quality minutes off the bench as well, and could be a big factor when the second units are matched up.

In the end I think the match-up is pretty even talent and coaching wise, and this is going to be a great game. One interesting number to keep in mind here, Izzo is 1-8 in head to head meetings with Coach K, which he is well aware of as he was quoted saying “You can’t have a rivalry when it’s 8-1” in a Detroit Free Press article from 2015.

After tonight I think Izzo will be 2-8. I like the Spartan’s front court, I like Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges playing together against that Duke front line, and I think Winston and Langford do enough for the Spartans to escape with a win. Prediction: Michigan State by 4.

Kentucky vs Kansas

This game is a real contrast in style, philosophy, and age. Kansas has a senior point guard in All-American Devonte Graham alongside redshirt sophomore Malik Newman, junior LaGerald Vick and senior Svi Mykhailiuk against a Kentucky team made up almost entirely of freshman with one sophomore, Wenyen Gabriel. The Wildcats are loaded with young talent however. Nick Richards, PJ Washington, Kevin Knox, Shai Alexander and Quade Green are all fantastic five star prospects, but they have combined for 10 collegiate games. The loss of fellow 5 star freshman Jarred Vanderbilt to injury is a huge blow as he is a player that can do a little bit of everything including shoot from the perimeter.

Both teams come in with a record of 2-0, which is to be expected given their competition to date, but Kentucky did get a dose what an experienced team can do to them when Vermont almost erased a 12 point halftime deficit two days ago to give the Wildcats a scare. Kentucky ended up holding on for a 4 point victory, but they also allowed the Catamounts to shoot 60% in the second half. Now, Vermont is a tough team, they will be in the tournament this year after returning most of a team that ran the table in their conference last season, but when you combine the second half of this game with the fact that Kentucky also trailed Utah Valley by double digits at one point in the first half on opening night, some questions start to arise.

One concern of mine is: Through two games, Kentucky has only made eight 3-pointers, which is not hugely concerning quite yet as they had only made 9 through two games last season with a team that went on to win 32 games, but it is something to keep your eye on. I do wonder, if Kansas jumps on them early and pushes the lead to double digits, will Kentucky be able to recover given their age and lack of deep threats? Malik Monk is not on this team to score 35 points and dig the Cats out of a big hole.

Kansas will also introduce prize recruit Billy Preston tonight after the five star, 6’10 freshman was suspended for the opener for missing class as well as curfew. The Jayhawks are certainly going to need him considering Kentucky is going to start a front court of 6’7, 6’9 and 6’11. Mitch Lightfoot did play 17 minutes in the opener for Kansas, and while he did have 6 points and 5 rebounds in that game, he also had four turnovers. I don’t expect to see a whole lot from him tonight unless Preston and/or Azubuike find themselves in foul trouble early.

So, we have an experienced team with a senior point guard and wings that can shoot the ball, playing against a team with no upperclassman, hasn’t shown they can shoot and is playing away from home for the first time in a high profile showcase event. To me this screams, Kansas by double digits. Which obviously means Kentucky will win by 30.

In all seriousness though, I would not be shocked for the youthful exuberance of the  Wildcats to lead them to an early lead, but at the end of the day I think Kansas wins this game. You can’t ignore the amount of big game experience on the Kansas side, and Graham will probably get the best of Green a few times at the end of the day. Kentucky will be a good team this season and will continue to improve, but for them to beat another top 5 team, on the road, in one of the first games of the season will take a far better showing than what I have seen so far and seems unlikely. Prediction: Kansas by 5.

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