The kind of college basketball that fans will be treated to on Tuesday night in the third annual Champions Classic isn’t supposed to happen until the Final Four.
The United Center in Chicago will play host to a doubleheader matching up four of the top five teams in the initial AP Top 25 poll. No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State will battle for the top spot in the nation to kick off the evening, and then superstar freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker will go head-to-head when No. 4 Duke matches up with No. 5 Kansas.
If the NCAA tournament is the main course for any given college basketball season, this is as juicy as a regular-season appetizer gets.
Before we delve deeper into the individual matchups, it’s worth looking at some of the numbers surrounding this event. Kentucky, Kansas and Duke are three of the four all-time winningest programs, and the four schools have 17 national titles between them. Furthermore, the Wildcats, Spartans, Jayhawks and Blue Devils have been to 24 Final Fours in the past 21 years.
It’s safe to say we are talking about college basketball royalty here.
Kentucky vs. Michigan State
Kentucky leads the all-time series against Michigan State 12-10, but the Spartans won the last meeting in the 2005 NCAA tournament in a double-overtime classic. Both teams dominated their respective season opener, with the Wildcats throttling UNC-Asheville and the Spartans handling McNeese State.
The battle for the top spot in the country is a classic showdown between experience and raw talent. John Calipari assembled arguably the best recruiting class in the history of the sport and will be relying on those freshmen all season, while Tom Izzo’s trio of Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne give the Spartans leadership that is needed to succeed in marquee contests.
Were this matchup to take place again in March, Kentucky’s incredible depth and ability could be enough. However, it is going to take some time for the Wildcats to reach their full potential with so many young players on the floor at once, and Michigan State will take advantage.
Look for Appling and Harris to suffocate the Harrison brothers on the defensive end, forcing critical turnovers in the process. The Spartans will convert the subsequent opportunities in transition into easy baskets.
But it’s not just the harassing defense Michigan State plays that will give Kentucky trouble. You would be hard-pressed to find a more physically dominant squad in the country and on the boards than Izzo’s bunch. Between the Spartans’ defense and proclivity for contact, the young Wildcats will grow frustrated by late in the second half.
Prediction: Michigan State 78, Kentucky 72
Duke vs. Kansas
Duke leads the all-time series against Kansas 7-2, a mark that includes a victory in the most recent matchup in the 2011 EA Sports Maui Invitational title game.
You’ve heard all the cliches—there’s no "I" in team, basketball is a team game, it’s not about individual matches, etc. In fact, if you talked to Bill Self, Mike Krzyzewski or either of their prized freshmen in the days leading up to this game, you would probably hear those same cliches again.
But fans don’t have to live in the boring world of coachspeak. The headlines following this matchup will undoubtedly focus on the battle between Wiggins and Parker.
And how could they not?
We are talking about the presumed No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft in Wiggins and a freshman who was already on the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school and called the best prospect since LeBron James in Parker.
While the freshmen showdown may be the story, the talent surrounding Parker will make the difference in this game. Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, Rodney Hood and even Amile Jefferson are a more formidable surrounding cast at this point of the year than Andrew White III, Wayne Selden, Tarik Black and Perry Ellis.
The Jayhawks, in a similar fashion to Kentucky in the first contest, are very talented but don’t quite have the experience to win this game at this point in the year after replacing all five starters (the story will be different in March for both squads).
Prediction: Duke 81, Kansas 73