Complete Guide to College Basketball's 2017 Champions Classic
The 2017-18 college basketball season started Friday, but we all know the year doesn't really get underway until the Champions Classic on Tuesday. And this year's rendition of the way-too-early Final Four might be the best ever.
This neutral-court affair is always must-watch television, as it features four of the most iconic programs and coaches in college basketball. There are highly touted freshmen and sensational seniors, tickling the fancy of college basketball diehards and NBA draft pundits alike.
But it's also four of the favorites to win the 2018 national championship: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State (7 p.m. ET on ESPN), followed by No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 7 Kentucky (9:30 p.m. on ESPN).
Before we dive headlong into pregame analysis for this double-header, we're going to take a look back at the six-year history of the event and what winning (and losing) has meant in terms of NCAA tournament seeding.
After that, though, we'll tell you all about the fabulous freshmen and Wooden Award candidates descending upon Chicago, as well as the teams' strengths and weaknesses and contests' key matchups.
Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State have been participating in this Champions Classic for the past six years, and they have more or less played to a draw.
Both Duke and Michigan State have gone 3-3, and the overall tally for the Blue Devils is 451 points scored to 453 points allowed. Kentucky is the leader at 4-2, which leaves Kansas in last place at 2-4. But save for that one time in 2014 when the Wildcats trounced the Jayhawks 72-40, most of these games have been competitive and a delight to watch—even though they are played in the opening week of the season and several of the teams are always breaking in a bunch of freshmen.
If we focus specifically on the history of this year's pairings, though, things aren't quite as balanced.
In addition to the aforementioned beatdown in 2014, Kentucky defeated Kansas 75-65 in 2011. Now, it'd be a little unfair to hold those against the Jayhawks, because those were the years the Wildcats went 38-1 with the platoons approach and 38-2 with Anthony Davis. Few teams had any chance against the Cats. And based on its early results against Utah Valley and Vermont, that's not what Kentucky is bringing to the table this year.
In the other matchup, Duke is 2-0, with a 74-69 win in 2011 and an 81-71 victory in 2014. Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry were unstoppable in the first game, and Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow each scored at least 15 points in the second game.
Though it's only mid-November, we're already thinking about March. And in this forward-looking, hyper-reactionary world we call "sports media," there will be dozens of articles written after the Champions Classic, crowning one or two of these teams as the favorite(s) to win the national championship.
The natural response to that type of first-week-of-the-season conclusion is for the fans of the losing teams to scream that it doesn't matter, that these teams are going to evolve and improve so much over the course of the next four months that this one game ends up being irrelevant.
However, that's not the case.
On average, the winning teams have received an NCAA tournament seed of 2.1, while the losing teams are at 4.3 (counting Kentucky's 2013 NIT appearance as a No. 12 seed). If we exclude Kansas from those numbers—since the Jayhawks always win the Big 12 and end up with either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed—those seed averages change to 2.2 and 5.8, respectively.
All 12 winners earned a No. 4 seed or better in that year's tournament, while there have been multiple instances of the loser spending a significant portion of the season on the bubble.
Granted, it hasn't meant much for the randomness of the NCAA tournament. Kentucky lost to Michigan State in 2013, got a No. 8 seed in the dance and reached the national championship game. The following year, the Spartans lost to Duke, got a No. 7 seed and met up with the Blue Devils again in the Final Four. But as far as starting position is concerned, the winners of the Champions Classic tend to have an advantage.
That certainly isn't always the case. There have been three instances of a team losing in November and getting a No. 1 seed in March (Michigan State in 2011-12 and Kansas in 2012-13 and 2015-16). (In all three instances, the team that beat those teams in November did not get a No. 1 seed.) There were also three times the loser went on to receive a No. 2 seed (Duke in 2016-17 and Kansas in 2011-12 and 2014-15). So, 50 percent of the time, even the losers in these games have received a fast track to the Elite Eight.
The moral of the story is there's a reason these teams are in the Champions Classic, but the winners tend to experience more success during the regular season.
The Champions Classic has practically become an in-season NBA Draft Combine, and that'll be particularly true this year. B/R's draft expert, Jonathan Wasserman, posted his big board at the beginning of this month. There were 16 players from these four teams in the Top 50, 11 in the Top 25 and three in the Top 10.
Naturally, most of those players are freshmen.
Most prominent among them is Duke's Marvin Bagley III, who has lived up to the hype thus far. He had 25 points and 10 rebounds in the season opener against Elon and went for 24 points and 10 rebounds the following night against Utah Valley. Provided he can drastically improve his 22.2 percent free-throw shooting, he appears to be headed for a sensational season.
His freshman teammates have been rock solid, too. Wendell Carter Jr. is averaging 10 points and three blocks per game. Gary Trent Jr. has scored 17 in each game and is shooting 7-of-13 (53.8 percent) from three-point range. And Trevon Duval has an absurd ratio of 20 assists to one turnover in 51 minutes of action. Last year, Jayson Tatum was the only Duke freshman who came anywhere close to meeting expectations, but the Blue Devils are looking much more worthy of the preseason No. 1 ranking this November.
Things haven't gone quite as swimmingly at the nation's other one-and-done factory. Kentucky's Hamidou Diallo has been every bit as good as advertised, but everyone else is going through some early growing pains.
Kevin Knox is just 6-of-23 (26.1 percent) from the field through two games. Quade Green struggled against Utah Valley, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander followed suit with a tough outing against Vermont. PJ Washington had a double-double against the Catamounts, but he has been inefficient. And Nick Richards has yet to assert himself as a dominant big man. But it's early, and this is what a team that's starting five freshmen is supposed to look like.
Elsewhere, Billy Preston was suspended for Kansas' season opener, but the egregiously overlooked Marcus Garrett had 10 points and 10 rebounds against Tennessee State. And Michigan State's Jaren Jackson Jr. was great against North Florida, finishing with 13 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and two steals. Against the undersized Ospreys, he looked like a grown man playing in a youth league game.
Suffice it to say, it's going to be fun watching all these potential lottery picks for the next few months.
Wooden Award Candidates
In addition to the one-year rentals everyone is excited to watch, there will be a few serious contenders for National Player of the Year in these two games.
The biggest reason Kansas opened the season in the Top 5 of the AP poll was because Devonte' Graham returned for one final year.
The combo guard was underappreciated in his first three seasons while guys like Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis soaked up all the spotlight, but Graham has been a great shooter, an above-average passer and a plus defender throughout his career. And now that this is his show, look out. In the season opener, he had 10 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and three steals.
The other marquee senior in this event is Duke's Grayson Allen.
He has changed a lot from the ball-dominant sophomore who played with his hair on fire and darn near finished that season with more made free throws than attempted three-pointers. But even though he's more of just a perimeter shooter now, he's still a major asset for the Blue Devils. Through two games, he's averaging 20.0 points and has made 10 of his 15 three-point attempts. On Tuesday, we'll find out more about his veteran leadership of an otherwise extremely young team.
The front-runner for the Wooden Award, though, is Michigan State sophomore Miles Bridges.
A phenom who can affect the game in just about every way imaginable, Bridges is a matchup nightmare on both ends of the floor. At some point this season, there's going to be a sequence where he blocks a shot, takes off down the court and throws down an alley-oop. If it happens in this game, it'll be the highlight of the year.
Duke: Frontcourt Prowess
Don't get me wrong. The Blue Devils have a darn fine backcourt in Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen. But this is a frontcourt the likes of which we've never seen at Duke.
Marvin Bagley III is already more dominant one week into his freshman season than Mason Plumlee was as a senior, and Wendell Carter Jr. is Duke's best rim protector since probably Shelden Williams, right? And that was more than a decade ago. Factor in Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier off the bench, and this team should own the paint all season.
Kansas: Perimeter Shooting
For the longest time, the Jayhawks have been all about the big men. Just in the past decade, they have had Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun, Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey, Kevin Young, Joel Embiid, Perry Ellis and Landen Lucas.
This year, though, Kansas is going to shoot threes like never before. Lagerald Vick, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and Devonte' Graham combined for 21 of the team's 28 three-point attempts in the opener. From 2012-13 to 2014-15, the Jayhawks did not once attempt more than 25 triples in a game. But with this roster construction, letting it fly gives them their best shot at sustained success.
Kentucky: Raw Talent
Though the Wildcats struggled with both Utah Valley and Vermont, there were stretches in each game where things turned into a track meet and there was no doubting which team was athletically superior. Hell, Hamidou Diallo threw down a windmill dunk on a breakaway with Kentucky trailing the Wolverines by five in the second half.
It's going to take some time for everything to come together in terms of running sets in the half-court offense and knowing when to call out switches or fight over screens on the defensive end. But when the Wildcats get to speed things up and play with space in transition, there's not a better team in the country.
Michigan State: Overall Depth
Nine players made multiple field goals in the Spartans opener against North Florida, and that wasn't just a matter of no-name players getting a little bit of run in garbage time of a blowout. Michigan State is going to run 10 or 11 deep all season.
Matt McQuaid, Lourawls Nairn Jr., Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter all came off the bench against the Ospreys. Two seasons ago, all four of those guys averaged at least 12.5 minutes per game and combined to start 30 games. The Spartans also brought Xavier Tillman off the bench, a fringe top-100 freshman in this year's class, according to 247Sports. There are starting fives that can beat Michigan State's, but no bench in the country will beat this second unit.
Duke: Backcourt Depth
While Michigan State can make substitutions like line changes in hockey, Duke is going to be in some trouble if it ever has to go more than one player into its reserve of guards. As great as Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen may be, one has to wonder how fresh they'll be by the end of the season with only Alex O'Connell as a viable backup.
The Blue Devils do have sophomore Jack White and freshman Jordan Tucker—a pair of 6'7" forwards capable of playing the 3 in a big lineup. Having those guys eat minutes here and there could be a creative way of getting a little extra rest for the backcourt workhorses. But with Allen effectively serving as the backup to Duval, the point guard situation will be worth monitoring throughout the season.
Kansas: Frontcourt Prowess
At least Duke has a full backcourt and one reserve. Kansas has Udoka Azubuike and Billy Preston in the frontcourt and not much else. And Preston was suspended for the season opener for missing curfew and class.
The good news is there are some guards on the team who are committed to crashing the boards. Both Devonte' Graham and Marcus Garrett had seven defensive rebounds in the opener, and they were active on the glass in an exhibition game against Missouri last month. But those guys aren't big enough to reliably defend opposing power forwards, so any team with multiple capable big men may be a problem for the Jayhawks.
Kentucky: Perimeter Shooting
Malik Monk, Jamal Murray and Devin Booker aren't walking through that door, which has made the Wildcats' lack of perimeter options one of the biggest red flags in the country coming into the season. And thus far, they have done nothing to placate that concern, shooting 8-of-24 (33.3 percent) from downtown in their first two games.
Hamidou Diallo has made three of his six attempts, but he was the only player to make multiple triples in either game. Kevin Knox is the guy Big Blue Nation is hoping will become the go-to scorer/shooter, but he made just one of four attempts in each of the first two games.
It's not necessarily a death knell. Louisville was not a good three-point shooting team when it may or may not have won the 2013 national championship. North Carolina was just average from the perimeter when it won it all last year. But it does mean Kentucky will need to become dominant on the offensive and defensive glass.
Michigan State: Turnovers
Turnovers were a major issue for the Spartans last season, both in terms of avoiding committing them on offense and creating them on defense. Their turnover margin was minus-110 for the season, and they went 7-12 in games in which they committed at least two more turnovers than they forced.
Based on one data point, they're even worse than they were last year. Michigan State did not commit more than 19 turnovers in any game last season, but it coughed up the ball 21 times in the season opener. We should also point out, however, that the Spartans had 12 steals against North Florida, which was more than they had in any game last season, so that contest was a turnover bonanza.
Matchups to Watch
Duke vs. Michigan State
Trevon Duval vs. Cassius Winston
As previously mentioned, Duval had 20 assists in the first two games and is arguably the most important player for the Blue Devils. As also previously mentioned, turnovers were a major problem for the Spartans last season, and Winston averaged 4.3 per 40 minutes as a freshman. If there's a clear winner of this individual battle, it would be a huge advantage for that player's team.
Marvin Bagley III vs. Jaren Jackson Jr.
There are some potential NBA draft ramifications if one of these projected top-10 picks significantly outplays the other, but the big thing to keep an eye on is how the referees call this individual battle early in the contest. Bagley has done a great job of playing without fouling thus far, but Jackson committed four fouls and drew six against North Florida. And with Michigan State holding an obvious edge in overall depth, a few early whistles would swing things in favor of the Spartans.
Duke vs. Miles Bridges
When Michigan State goes big with Bridges at the 3—otherwise known as its starting lineup—who is Mike Krzyzewski going to use on defense against the best player in the country? Gary Trent Jr. is an outstanding scorer who is more than capable of defensively hanging with most wing-forwards he'll face, but Bridges isn't most wing-forwards. And with four freshmen in the starting lineup, it's probably a little early in the year to do much experimenting with zone defense.
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Devonte' Graham and Malik Newman vs. Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Controlling the pace of play is going to be a huge element of this game, and that starts with the point guards. If Graham and Newman avoid committing turnovers and work well together on offense to create open looks on the perimeter, advantage Kansas. But if Green can effectively penetrate on offense while Gilgeous-Alexander's length poses a problem for Kansas on defense, advantage Kentucky.
Udoka Azubuike vs. Nick Richards/Sacha Killeya-Jones
Overall frontcourt depth is a clear advantage for Kentucky, but if Azubuike can stay out of foul trouble and remain on the floor for 30 or more minutes, who needs depth? He was starting to develop into a dominant post presence before suffering a wrist injury that ended his freshman season last December, and early returns indicate he has more than picked up where he left off. Azubuike could be a major factor on the offensive glass.
Kansas vs. Kevin Knox
Similar to the Devils' problem with Bridges, what are the Jayhawks going to do to slow down Knox? Kansas will typically have at least three players on the floor who are 6'5" or shorter, which means someone is going to be giving up at least four inches against Knox—a mismatch Kentucky should exploit. Knox has been a nightmare from the field thus far this season, but he's a much better scorer than he has shown. If he heats up in this one, Bill Self doesn't have an option to extinguish him.
Duke vs. Michigan State
Though I fully expect Miles Bridges to have a huge game, Duke's overall talent advantage will be the difference in this one.
A Michigan State frontcourt of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Nick Ward is going to terrorize a lot of opponents this season, but Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. are more than capable of besting that duo. And while Bridges, Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston are solid shooters, expecting them to keep up with the three-point barrage from Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. might be asking too much.
Trevon Duval's 20-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio will come back to earth, but as long as he doesn't crack under pressure by forcing bad passes and worse shots, the Blue Devils will survive this first major challenge.
Prediction: Duke 82, Michigan State 77
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Kentucky would probably be the favorite if these teams were to meet again in March, but the November edge in experience and cohesion will be enough for Kansas to get its first win over the Wildcats in this event.
Unlike previous years where John Calipari could just roll the ball out and expect his young guys to dominate, this team needs some seasoning. It needs to figure out rotations and role allocations on offense, and it needs to learn how to guard the perimeter on defense.
Unless Kentucky miraculously solved that latter problem in the two days since it allowed Vermont to make 10 three-pointers (and miss a few wide-open ones), that's going to be the difference in this game. Kansas is loaded with shooters and moves the ball about as well as any team in the country. The Jayhawks will be able to get open looks for Lagerald Vick and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, and the Wildcats will pay the price.
Coupled with the fact that Kentucky's three-point shooting is a work in progress, it's going to be tough for the Wildcats to keep pace with twos.
Prediction: Kansas 79, Kentucky 71