Four Hall-of-Fame coaches. Three preseason All-Americans. The leading contender to be taken No. 1 overall in next year’s NBA draft.
This year’s Champions Classic features as much star power as any recent edition of the annual event has.
The headline game pits star-studded Duke against formidable Michigan State in a matchup of the top two teams in the latest Associated Press Top 25. The nightcap features a skilled, guard-heavy Kansas team against a Kentucky squad long on potential but short on experience.
Below are three keys to both games and predictions for who will win:
THREE KEYS TO NO. 1 DUKE (2-0) vs. NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE (1-0)
1. Who wins the point guard battle?
Two star-studded teams who are loaded at every other position have the same area of concern: Point guard
For Michigan State to go from good to great this season, sophomore point guard Cassius Winston must blossom into a better decision maker and a more consistent defensive presence. Winston has excellent quickness, elite court vision and a knack for setting up his teammates in places where they like to score, but his turnover rate was too high as a freshman.
For Duke to avoid some of the pitfalls that prevented last year’s preseason No. 1 team from meeting expectations, the Blue Devils need freshman point guard Trevon Duval to solidify the team’s lone position of weakness. Duval is bigger and more athletic than Winston, but he isn’t as natural a distributor, he has a bad habit of trying to do too much off the dribble and he has yet to show he can consistently knock down jump shots.
2. Who wins the frontcourt battle?
This could be the year of the big man in college basketball, and Michigan State and Duke boast some of the sport’s best. The Blue Devils have marquee talent and the Spartans have unparalleled depth.
While freshman Wendell Carter is big and skilled, sophomore Javin DeLaurier is a versatile defender and sophomore Marques Bolden is a former McDonald’s All-American hoping for a bounce-back season, there’s no question who the headliner in Duke’s frontcourt is. Freshman forward Marvin Bagley, maybe the favorite to be taken No. 1 in the NBA draft next June, is averaging 24.5 points and 10.0 rebounds two games into his college career.
Matching up with Bagley will be another freshman NBA scouts love, Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson. Sophomore center Nic Ward is an elite low-post scorer who averaged 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds last season. Fifth-year senior Gavin Schilling is an experienced big man who has seemingly been part of Michigan State’s rotation for a decade. Freshman Xavier Tillman has impressed in practice and transfer Ben Carter is a former starter at UNLV and Oregon.
3. Can Miles Bridges live up to supersized expectations?
Potential lottery picks don’t often return to college basketball as sophomores, but Bridges is the exception. The high-flying Michigan State small forward became the instant favorite to win national player of the year when he announced last spring that he would not be entering the NBA draft.
Exploiting an edge in quickness against opposing power forwards last season, Bridges averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds as a freshman and showed a knack for scoring from behind the arc and at the rim. The challenge for Bridges this season will be improving on those numbers while being guarded by opposing wings instead.
It will be Duke freshman Gary Trent Jr. who will likely draw the unenviable challenge of checking the 6-foot-7 Bridges. The 6-foot-6 Trent has the physical tools to keep Bridges in front of him off the dribble and to avoid being overpowered on the block, yet he’ll probably need help trying to contain a scorer of this caliber in his first marquee college game.
Predicted winner: Duke
THREE KEYS TO NO. 4 KANSAS (1-0) vs. NO. 7 KENTUCKY (2-0)
1. Are Kentucky’s freshmen ready for this stage?
John Calipari has proven he can build around heralded freshmen year after year, but never has he brought a roster this inexperienced to the Champions Classic. Only one rotation player returns from last year: Forward Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged a whopping 4.6 points per game.
While Kentucky has the talent to be a factor in the SEC and nationally by the end of the season, the Wildcats don’t appear to be playing at that level yet. They rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit to edge Utah Valley in Friday night’s season opener and survived a couple of last-ditch Vermont attempts at a game-tying 3-pointer two nights later.
Granted Utah Valley is a solid mid-major and Vermont returns four starters from a 29-win NCAA tournament team, but it’s clear Kentucky is not as far along as it often is at this stage of the season. The Wildcats struggled guarding pick and rolls, appeared slow and confused making defensive rotations and lacked enough shooters to properly space the floor.
2. Can Kansas hold its own against Kentucky’s size and length inside?
Kentucky often rolls out a lineup with five players 6-5 or taller. Kansas sometimes plays four guards at once. Therefore it’s not hard to figure out what the Wildcats’ biggest advantage on Tuesday night should be: Size and length.
The return of a healthy Udoka Azubuike ensures the Jayhawks will have at least one dominant rebounder and rim protector to match against Kentucky’s towering front line. Azubuike’s ability to stay healthy and avoid foul trouble will be critical for Kansas because the depth behind him is unproven at best and unfit for a game like this at worst.
Skilled 6-10 freshman Billy Preston could start alongside Azubuike at power forward, but Kansas might have to play four guards and trade offense for defense when either of those two come out of the game. The third big man on the roster is 6-foot-8 Mitch Lightfoot, who would be at a major disadvantage in length and athleticism and would be hard-pressed to keep Kentucky off the glass.
3. Can Kentucky keep Kansas’ array of guards out of the paint?
The way Vermont point guard Trae Bell-Haynes got wherever he wanted on the floor against Kentucky, the Wildcats could be in for a rude awakening against the Kansas backcourt.
The Jayhawks boast a formidable group of guards headlined by All-American candidate Devonte Graham, prized Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman and 3-and-D specialist LaGerald Vick. Throw in skilled freshman Marcus Garrett and sharpshooting senior Svi Mykhaliuk, and Bill Self has five great options even before Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe gets eligible next month.
The key for Kentucky will be to defending ball screens more effectively, recovering to shooters faster and taking advantage of their size and length in the paint with better recognition on help defense. When Kansas goes small, there will be mismatches at one or more spots on the floor. It will be up to the young Wildcats to mitigate the deficit in quickness at one end and and punish the Jayhawks’ lack of size at the other.
Predicted winner: Kansas
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