The start of the college basketball season marks the beginning of the best three month stretch of the year for sports fans. This is when we get both college football and basketball, the NFL, and the NBA, at the same, damn, time! And while Friday marked the beginning of college basketball, tonight is the TRUE start to the college hoops season, with the third installment of the, Champions Classic.
Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Kansas are four of the nations top five teams this year, and four of college basketball’s most storied programs. These four teams, coached by four hall of famers, have combined to win five of the last thirteen national titles, with each team reaching the Final Four at least once in the past five seasons. The site of this year’s Final Four is “Jerry World” in Arlington, TX, and all of these teams are poised for a deep postseason run, with hopes of it concluding in the lone star state. These two early season match-ups will be a great measuring stick for each program, and their fabulous freshman, in games that will feature an NCAA tournament feel. Let’s see how these teams stack up, and find out who I have prevailing tonight.
Michigan State vs Kentucky
It’s been well publicized that Kentucky features the nations best freshman class, and likely the best freshman class in the history of college basketball. My second favorite incoming freshman, PF Julius Randle was better than advertised in the Cats opener, scoring 23 and adding 13 boards. H e already has an NBA body and is a sure fire top 5 pick in next year’s draft. The Wildcats also feature elite freshman guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and sophomore big men Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. As usual under Cal, Kentucky will look to get up and down on offense, and use their length and athleticism to pressure the ball while on defense. While blue chip recruits aren’t anything new for Coach Cal and Kentucky, we have seen them struggle early in the season, as they’ve attempted to gel with one another on the court. Michigan State is the perfect early season test for this Cats squad.
On the other side, Coach Izzo’s Spartans are an experienced and battle tested group. The State backcourt has a perfect balance of youth and leadership with sophomore Gary Harris and senior Keith Appling. Appling has been the Spartans leader and starting point guard for three seasons, and has no fear of driving the lane amongst the tree’s. Harris was one of the nation’s top freshman in 2012-13 before a shoulder injury derailed his season. He is again healthy, and brings immense versatility to the Michigan State lineup. He can score from anywhere and is always a threat to take over a game. The Spartans also feature one of the countries nastiest big men, Adreian Payne. The light bulb seemed to finally turn on for Payne down the stretch last year, making him a formidable threat in the low post, to go along with his special skills in transition. The Payne, Randle match-up down low will be worth the price of admission alone.
Prediction: Michigan State over Kentucky 77-72
In the night’s second match-up, the nations #1 and #2 recruits will face off, in the latter’s hometown. SF Andrew Wiggins, and PF Jabari Parker lead two star studded squads in a blue blood battle. The Kansas Jayhawks lost all five starters off of last year’s team and still find themselves ranked 5th. That’s mostly because of the athletic freak that is, Andrew Wiggins. This young man possesses tools that are tailor made for NBA stardom, more so even then they are for college basketball. Had he been eligible last year, Wiggins would’ve been the #1 pick in the NBA draft.The Jayhawks also feature another great freshman in SG Wayne Selden, who can fill it up in the half court, and get out and run in transition. The Jayhawks will be looking for major contributions from junior PG Naadir Tharpe and sophomore PF Perry Ellis this season. Both will be considered veterans on this Kansas team, and will be relied on heavily by coach Bill Self.
The #4 ranked Duke Blue Devils arrive in Chicago with a vastly different look from last year’s Elite 8 squad. The Blue Devils lost lottery pick Mason Plumlee, seniors Ryan Kelly, and Seth Curry, and just may have gotten better. My favorite incoming freshman, Jabari Parker and Miss St transfer Rodney Hood wasted no time getting acclimated in Duke blowout win over Davidson Friday, combining for only three missed shots, and 44 points. The long and athletic wings will be asked to mask to lack of size on this Duke roster by playing in the paint and on the glass often. The Duke backcourt is a very talented and deep unit. Led by junior play maker Quinn Cook and sophomore sensation Rasheed Sulaimon, the Blue Devils guards are very versatile, intelligent, and battle tested in the biggest of games. Duke also welcomes back senior sharp shooter Andre Dawkins after a year away from the team. While very young, this Duke team is extremely athletic and deep. Duke also features the nations best coach in Mike Krzyzewski, who is looking to go 3-0 in the Champions Classic.
Prediction: Duke over Kansas 81-74