Since the first Champions Classic in 2011, four of the premier basketball programs compete against each other to kick off the start of college basketball season. Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Kansas face off against one another on a rotating three year schedule. Each year, only two games are played, so no winner is actually crowned in this Champions’ Classic, but it’s a great way to kick off the college basketball season. On to this year’s matchups:
No. 10 Michigan State vs No. 1 Kansas
Kansas is the only team in this year’s State Farm Champions’ Classic that made it to the final four last season. Despite falling to eventual champions Villanova, Kansas has a strong potential starting lineup that explains their preseason ranking. Junior Doke Azubuike, junior transfer Dedric Lawson, and the team’s only senior Lagerald Vick are three confirmed starters, and that leaves openings in the backcourt that could potentially be filled by incoming freshman guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes.
Michigan State lost a huge scorer and defender in Miles Bridges to this year’s draft, and their starting lineup still isn’t entirely set yet. According to Coach Tom Izzo, Junior guard Cassius Winston will fill an important role in the backcourt, especially as the team’s leading scorer last season after Bridges. After Winston and Bridges, junior forward Nick Ward was third on the team in points per game last season and a large part of their run in last season’s tournament.
This is going to be a low scoring, high intensity matchup between two “veteran”-filled teams, but Kansas has the advantage in size, speed, and player experience. Expect Kansas to win this matchup by at least 8 to 10 points.
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 2 Kentucky
Perhaps the most exciting team in college basketball this season thanks to all their freshman recruits, Duke enters this game as the surprising underdog. Coach K’s squad lost four starters from last year’s team to the NBA draft, and their fifth starter was signed as an undrafted free agent soon after the draft, so Krzyzewski will have to create yet another dominant lineup with only last season’s sixth man, junior center Marques Bolden, to lead the team. All eyes will be on Zion Williamson, as the absolute spectacle of a human being will put his talents up to the test of a real college basketball game. Duke’s freshman class was the top recruiting class of this season thanks to the top three recruits (Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett, and Zion Williamson) all joining the Blue Devils, so Duke will again be an inexperienced team under an extremely experienced coach…what else is new.
Kentucky’s season ended earlier than expected last season, losing to 9th seeded Kansas State in the Sweet 16. Even with an exciting new freshman class that ranked second behind Duke, Kentucky’s returners in sophomores Nick Richards, PJ Washington, and Quade Green give them the edge over Duke in overall experience. Kentucky is a smaller team but have significantly better proven ball handlers – at the moment at least – to keep them in the game at all times. Even if Coach K throws zone defense at Kentucky, they should not show any decrease in play quality.
Offensively, Duke can dominate in the paint but are yet to prove their ability to shoot well from behind the arc. This is a point that Kentucky can exploit, staying more reserved on defense unless Zion drills threes like a highlight reel. Duke has the obvious size advantage, but Kentucky will most likely rely on quick passing and consistent shooters like freshman guard Tyler Herro during important points of the game. Kentucky has the -1.5 edge over Duke according to Vegas, but this matchup has the potential to go anywhere. Duke by 4? Kentucky by 13? Double overtime? Who knows. I would stay away from the betting on the spread of this game due to all the uncertainty.