Complete Guide to College Basketball's 2019 Champions Classic

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 4, 2019

Complete Guide to College Basketball's 2019 Champions Classic

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    Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski
    Duke coach Mike KrzyzewskiPablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

    What better way to start the 2019-20 men's college basketball season than with the Top Four teams in the AP pollNo. 1 Michigan State, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Dukepartaking in the ninth annual Champions Classic?

    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 in case the AP Top 25 note wasn't clear, these are also four of the favorites to win the 2020 national championship. Per Caesars Sportsbook, Michigan State (+550) is the betting favorite, slightly edging out Kansas and Kentucky, tied for second place at +600. Memphis (+800) keeps it from being a clean sweep, but Duke is tied for fifth at +1000.

    Before we dive headlong into pregame analysis for this doubleheader, we're going to take a look back at the 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 predictions for both games.  

Uncharted AP Poll Territory

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    Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Tom Izzo
    Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Tom IzzoPat Semansky/Associated Press

    These four programs enter every season with national championship aspirations.

    Including this year, Kentucky has been ranked in the Top Three of the AP poll for eight of the past nine Champions Classicsand was still No. 7 for its "off" year in 2017. Duke has been in the Top Nine all nine years. Kansas was No. 12 in the first season (2011-12), but it has been in the Top Seven for eight straight years now. Michigan State has been the wild card, but the Spartans have been ranked for eight consecutive Champions Classics and have now been either No. 1 or No. 2 in the poll three times.

    But all four teams ranked in the Top Four at the same time?

    That's a new one.

    We came awfully close in 2013 when it was No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State and No. 4 Duke vs. No. 5 Kansas. They were also each in the Top 10 last season and occupied four of the top seven spots in the AP poll the year before that. However, this will be the first time we're #blessed with a pair of battles between projected No. 1 seeds.

    As nifty as it is to see No. 1 vs. No. 2 and No. 3 vs. No. 4 to open the season, though, it can't be stressed enough that the polls haven't meant anything in this event.

    For that marquee 1-2-4-5 event in 2013, the lower-ranked team won both games and none of the four ended up earning No. 1 seeds in the 2014 NCAA tournament. (More on NCAA tournament ramifications shortly.) No. 1 Kentucky beat No. 5 Kansas by 32 in 2014, but No. 4 Duke pummeled No. 2 Kentucky by a 34-point margin last year. And in the 10 games in this event where both teams were ranked in the Top 10, it's a dead split with both the higher-ranked team and the lower-ranked team winning five times.

    One final AP observation before we move on: No. 1 Duke lost in 2016, No. 2 Michigan State lost in 2017 and No. 2 Kentucky lost last year. Considering we have No. 1 Michigan State battling No. 2 Kentucky this time around, we are guaranteed to have a Top Two team suffer a loss in the Champions Classic for a fourth consecutive year.

Championship Game Drought

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    John Calipari and Bill Self at 2012 national championship
    John Calipari and Bill Self at 2012 national championshipBill Haber/Associated Press

    Preseason polls are always a fun talking point for this event, but odds are the teams aren't going to finish the season in the top four spots.

    The first edition of the Champions Classic was actually a decent Final Four preview, as both Kentucky and Michigan State earned No. 1 seeds in the 2012 NCAA tournament while Duke and Kansas were close behind with No. 2 seeds. Kentucky ended up beating Kansas in the national championship.

    In each year since then, though, at least one of these teams has ended up with a No. 4 seed or worse, including Kentucky missing the tournament altogether in 2013.

    More recent history is even more befuddling for an event supposed to feature the best of the best.

    In the first four years of this event, it produced two national champions (Kentucky in 2012; Duke in 2015), two national runners-up (Kansas in 2012; Kentucky in 2014) and two other Final Four teams (both Kentucky and Michigan State in 2015). That's a darn fine batting average.

    However, that 2015 tournamentwhen Duke beat MSU in the Final Four and went on to win it all with an assist from Wisconsin knocking out 38-0 Kentucky in the other national semifinal—was the last time at least two of these four teams earned a No. 1 seed. It was also the last time any of them played in the national championship.

    That isn't to say they have been colossal disappointments. Three of the four made the Elite Eight last year, which included Michigan State beating Duke to reach the Final Four. There was also a head-to-head Elite Eight showdown in 2018 with Kansas advancing at Duke's expense. In all, they have combined for 10 Sweet 16s, eight Elite Eights and two Final Fours in the past four years.

    Still, both Final Four appearances resulted in losses by double-digit margins—Texas Tech 61-51 over Michigan State; Villanova 95-79 over Kansasso it has been a little while since any of these four teams came all that close to winning a national championship.

    Maybe that drought ends this year. Maybe it doesn't. Just keep that in mind if and when one of the two games turns into a bit of a blowout and everyone in the national mediaincluding yours truly, probablyrushes to declare the victor of that game the best team and a near-lock to reach the Final Four.

    There is one way-too-early NCAA tournament conclusion that appears safe to jump to, though: The two winners will earn No. 4 seeds or better. We are 16-of-16 in that department, including six No. 1 seeds.

    It's much more of a crapshoot for the losing side. Three (2011-12 MSU, 2012-13 KU and 2015-16 KU) bounced back to earn No. 1 seeds. Five have earned No. 2 seeds (including both of last year's losers). But we also had 2012-13 Kentucky in the NIT, 2013-14 Kentucky as a No. 8 seed, 2014-15 MSU as a No. 7 seed and 2016-17 MSU as a No. 9 seed.

The Inevitable NBA Draft Conversation

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    Kentucky's Kahlil Whitney
    Kentucky's Kahlil WhitneyJames Crisp/Associated Press

    In most years, the Champions Classic almost means more to NBA fans than college basketball fans. Over the past six seasons, a combined total of 30 lottery picks have come from these four programs, 16 of which went in the top seven overall. That equates to 38 percent of the top-seven picks from the last six drafts, resulting in a stadium packed with scouts of both the professional and amateur variety.

    This year, however, there might not be a top-10 pick in the bunch, which would snap a ridiculous streak of eight consecutive years in which at least two top-seven picks played in the Champions Classic.

    There is still going to be an incredible amount of talent on the floor, though.

    According to a Hoops Hype aggregate of preseason mock drafts from around the internet, there are six projected first-round draft picks playing in this event: No. 12 Tyrese Maxey (UK), No. 13 Kahlil Whitney (UK), No. 16 Matthew Hurt (Duke), No. 17 Wendell Moore Jr. (Duke), No. 23 Tre Jones (Duke) and No. 29 Vernon Carey Jr. (Duke).

    There's also quite a collection of guys who conceivably could play their way into a first-round grade in a hurry.

    Michigan State's Cassius Winston doesn't have much NBA promise, but he's the preseason favorite for National Player of the Year. Teammates Aaron Henry and Xavier Tillman likely have a future in the NBA, and true freshman guard Rocket Watts could be the surprise MVP of the entire Champions Classic.

    Kansas has Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike as obvious candidates to sneak into the first round of the 2020 draft, as well as half a dozen other guys like Marcus Garrett and Silvio De Sousa who wouldn't need to overachieve by much to pull it off.

    And while Maxey and Whitney are the brightest stars of Kentucky's incoming class, Keion Brooks Jr. and Johnny Juzang both have one-and-done potential, too. Let's not forget about rising sophomores Ashton Hagans, EJ Montgomery and Immanuel Quickley, either.

    There aren't any can't-miss superstars like Marvin Bagley III, Josh Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, etc., but the sheer quantity of intriguing prospects makes this a must-watch night for NBA fans.

Duke's Biggest Strength and Weakness

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    Tre Jones
    Tre JonesGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Strength: Point Guard Play and Perimeter Defense

    At this point, we just expect Duke to need to replace all of its starters.

    Of the eight Blue Devils who started multiple games in 2016-17, Grayson Allen was the only one to return the following year. The entire starting five departed after the 2017-18 campaign. And they lost Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Marques Bolden this summer.

    Thus, getting a second year out of starting point guard Tre Jones was both a rare and substantial materialization for Mike Krzyzewski, especially considering Jones is easily Duke's best defensive point guard since Chris Duhon racked up 300 steals from 2000-04.

    He isn't much of a shooter (more on that shortly), but Jones is an excellent set-up man who averaged 5.3 assists per game and 3.6 assists per turnover. In fact, he finished his freshman season with 15 more steals (68) than turnovers (53), so you couldn't ask for a much better combination of running the offense and leading the defense.

    Freshman wings Cassius Stanley and Wendell Moore Jr. also possess a ton of potential on defense, and big man Javin DeLaurier is a great source of D out to the three-point arc, averaging 2.1 steals and 2.6 blocks per 40 minutes for his career.

    Best of luck trying to average a point per possession against this team. Duke won't become synonymous with Virginia because of pace-of-play differences, but the Blue Devils should be even more efficient on defense than they were last year.


    Weakness: Perimeter Shooting

    It was weird that Duke was one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the nation last season (30.8 percent), but the Blue Devils might have even more trouble in that department this year.

    Freshman Matthew Hurt is a bona fide modern-day power forward, standing 6'10" with excellent range on his jumper. There will be inevitable comparisons to Kyle Wiltjer's senior year at Gonzaga, when the big man was easily the best perimeter option on the roster, draining 90 triples at a 43.7 percent clip.

    Duke's backcourt is a much different story. Even though he inexplicably caught fire in the Sweet 16 against Virginia Tech, Jones isn't much of a threat from downtown, shooting 26.2 percent last season. And wings Moore and Stanley both have three-point shooting front and center on the "needs to improve" section of their various scouting reports.

    Factor in the extended three-point arc this season, and there will likely be a lot of ugly performances from deep. (Of course, Duke shot 12-of-26 from three in last year's Champions Classic, so there's always a chance this will be one of the nights when things go well.)

Kansas' Biggest Strength and Weakness

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    Kansas PG Devon Dotson
    Kansas PG Devon DotsonRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Strength: Brute Strength in the Paint

    Udoka Azubuike (injury) and Silvio De Sousa (ineligible) combined to appear in just nine games last season, but if they are both full participants in 2019-20, look out.

    Two years ago, Azubuike averaged 22.0 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per 40 minutes while making 77.0 percent of his field-goal attempts. (Most of them were dunks.) De Sousa only played 20 games and logged a meager 8.8 minutes on average, but he was good for 18.1 points and 16.9 rebounds per 40. If and when they're on the court together, how do you stop it?

    And those are just the two primary big men.

    Kansas also has senior forward Mitch Lightfoot, who has been an excellent source of blocked shots throughout his career, as well as David McCormack, who was the fifth-highest-rated center in last year's recruiting class, per 247Sports' composite. He didn't do much last season, but he's an obvious candidate for at least somewhat of a breakout year.

    Freshman forwards Jalen Wilson (6'8") and Tristan Enaruna (6'9") are rated in the top 65 overall and could be impact performers if they're able to even crack into a deep rotation.


    Weakness: Perimeter Shooting

    This is much less of a potential Achilles' heel for Kansas than it is for Duke. Devon Dotson (36.3 percent as a freshman) is more than capable of hitting shots. Ochai Agbaji didn't have a great percentage (30.7), but it certainly wasn't bad for a guy who didn't play until January and who was unexpectedly thrust into a high-volume role a few weeks later. And Iowa graduate transfer Isaiah Moss was a career 39.1 percent shooter with the Hawkeyes.

    But after several years of watching the likes of Wayne Selden, Frank Mason, Devonte' Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick simply bury the opposition from beyond the arc, there doesn't appear to be a sniper on this year's roster.

    Moreover, neither Azubuike nor De Sousa has yet attempted a three-point shot in a collegiate game, and Marcus Garrett often can't hit the broad side of a barn, shooting 25.5 percent from deep and 54.8 percent from the free-throw line in his two seasons in Lawrence. Opposing defenses don't even need to pretend to respect the three from those guys, meaning they'll be able to focus all of their perimeter attention on the couple of Jayhawks who can shoot.

    Considering both Duke and Kansas figure to thrive on perimeter defense, there's a non-zero chance they combine to shoot something awful like 6-of-35 against each other.

Kentucky's Biggest Strength and Weakness

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    Ashton Hagans
    Ashton HagansJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Strength: Point Guards for Days

    Four years ago, one of the biggest takeaways from the Champions Classic was amazement that Kentucky had three point guards in its starting lineup. Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray combined for 46 points, 12 assists and eight steals in a convincing win over Duke.

    In due time, Ulis became the primary ball-handler, Murray was the main deep threat and Briscoe was a slasher who couldn't shoot, but it was clear from the outset the Wildcats had three guards who could run the offense and that they would be a major threat to win it all if Skal Labissiere ever panned out in the frontcourt. (He didn't.)

    Should be a similar story this year. Ashton Hagans will return as the starting point guard after averaging 4.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game as a freshman. Immanuel Quickley—a 5-star point guard in last year's class—is also back and has been a source of much optimism this summer/preseason. And then there's freshman Tyrese Maxey, a combo guard who most expect to lead the Wildcats in scoring before leading Kentucky's annual one-and-done parade.

    That backcourt versatility—not to mention wings Johnny Juzang and Kahlil Whitney, who should both feature prominently in a strong three-point game—will make Kentucky one of the most unguardable teams in the nation.


    Weakness: Interior Play

    Per usual, John Calipari put together a loaded recruiting class: Three 5-star studs, a 4-star who barely missed a 5-star rating and a fifth guy ranked just outside the top 100. But while there is plenty of talent and depth in that collection, size is noticeably absent.

    No member of Kentucky's freshman class is listed taller than 6'7", which is so bizarre for Calipari. In his first year with UK, he signed 5-star bigs DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton. In fact, in each of his first nine seasons in Lexington, Calipari signed at least two players 6'8" or taller who were ranked in the top 50 overall in their class.

    In 2016, he got three such players—Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones. In 2017, he upped the ante to four by signing Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, PJ Washington and Nick Richards. It's little wonder Kentucky always has one of the best two-point defenses and shot-blocking percentages in the nation.

    However, EJ Montgomery was the only such pick up in last year's class, and now this year's bunch is devoid of big men.

    The Wildcats still have Montgomery and Richards, though neither one has been anywhere near as good as advertised in high school. They also picked up graduate transfer Nate Sestina from Bucknell, but his numbers against "real" opponents last season (Ohio State, TCU, Saint Mary's) were nothing special and he's more of a stretch 4 than a shot-blocker.

    It could be a rare mediocre year in the rim-protection department at Rupp Arena.

Michigan State's Biggest Strength and Weakness

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    Xavier Tillman
    Xavier TillmanCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Michigan State: Cassius Winston

    For a team ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll, there are a lot of uncertainties with this Michigan State roster. Not the least of these was the late October news that senior shooting guard Joshua Langford (foot injury) won't be available until at least January, if at all this season.

    But the return of senior point guard Cassius Winston seems to invalidate each of those concerns.

    In a sport where we rarely even see a third-team AP All-American come back for another year, Winston—a first-team All-American who averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 assists per game last season and who was the No. 31 overall recruit back in 2016—is the overwhelming preseason favorite for NPOY.

    Doug McDermott twice returned to Creighton after earning first-team honors, but the last major-conference player to do it (Creighton was in the Missouri Valley back then) was Ohio State's Jared Sullinger for the 2011-12 campaign. Even though those Buckeyes lost several key players (Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale) and had to bank on a ton of underclassmen, they spent the entire season in the AP Top 10 and made it to the Final Four before losing a heartbreaker against Kansas.

    And Winston is arguably even more of an impactful individual than Sullinger was. The Spartans should be the team to beat because of him.


    Michigan State: Unknowns in the Frontcourt

    The Spartans are usually one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. They had an average margin of plus-8.8 rebounds per game last season, this after a ridiculous mark of plus-10.9 the year prior.

    But they lost both Nick Ward and Kenny Goins, who combined for 35 percent of the team's rebounds in 2018-19 (555 of 1,579), each averaging roughly 12 boards per 40 minutes. That leaves the Spartans with some question marks in the frontcourt, as there is only one returning player who averaged at least 5.0 minutes per game and better than 7.0 rebounds per 40 minutes. 

    Michigan State still has a known stud in Xavier Tillman, but it's mostly "Well, Tom Izzo always finds a way" beyond that.

    Marcus Bingham Jr. is a 6'11" sophomore who could be a star before long. He only played 83 minutes last season, but he grabbed 26 rebounds and blocked 10 shots in that limited action. He also missed all seven of his two-point attempts and might be unplayable for anything more than brief spurts.

    If Bingham doesn't take a big step forward and if Marquette transfer Joey Hauser is not ruled eligible—How the hell is it November and we still don't have an answer there?—it will likely be 6'6" Aaron Henry and 6'6" Kyle Ahrens handling the bulk of Michigan State's "power forward" duties. Maybe 6'7" freshman Malik Hall and/or 6'7" sophomore Gabe Brown figures into the mix in a big way, but the moral of the story is that round mounds of rebound appear to be lacking.

Predictions for Tuesday Night

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    Udoka Azubuike
    Udoka AzubuikeOrlin Wagner/Associated Press

    No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 4 Duke (7 p.m. ET)

    Duke (5-3) has the best record in the history of this round-robin event, but Kansas has had the Blue Devils' number, winning both of the previous matchups, as well as the Elite Eight showdown in 2018.

    Will Bill Self defeat Mike Krzyzewski for a fourth consecutive time or will Duke get to exact a little revenge?

    It likely boils down to whether Duke's freshman bigs are ready to hold their own against grown men. The sophomore point guards and defensive-minded wings may well play to a stalemate, but it's tough to say how things will play out in the paint.

    Vernon Carey Jr. and Matthew Hurt both have lottery-pick potential and should be two of Duke's three brightest stars by the end of the year, but beginning one's college career against the likes of Udoka Azubuike, Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack is one hell of a baptism by fire.

    But the advantage might go in the opposite direction if Kansas' big men are rusty. De Sousa didn't play last year and Azubuikethanks to his second abridged season in three yearshas only played two games in the past 11 months. Carey and Hurt don't have any college experience yet, but at least they've had high school ball and the all-star circuit keeping them busy.

    In reality, the deciding X-factor will probably be the whistles. If Azubuike gets into early foul trouble, at least Kansas still has other options. If Carey is limited by fouls, Kansas probably dominates down low. And let's just say I'm not optimistic the referees will let a pair of 275ish-pound giants get away with a lot of contact in the first game of the season. Thus, advantage Kansas.

    Prediction: Kansas 76, Duke 71


    No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky (approx. 9:30 p.m. ET)

    It's an inverted rematch of 2013, when No. 2 Michigan State knocked off No. 1 Kentucky in a 78-74 gem. And it's hard not to like the chances of the No. 2 team pulling off the minor upset again this time around.

    Cassius Winston is going to be the reason Michigan State wins a lot of games this season, but he has been no stranger to turnover woes against aggressive defenses. He coughed the ball up at least five times in seven games last season, including the nine-turnover nightmare in MSU's stunning loss to Illinois.

    And he is going to have co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year Ashton Hagans in his face all night with some long, athletic wings ready, willing and able to jump passing lanes for pick-twos. If he's not careful, Michigan Statewhich is 1-4 in this event over the past five yearsmight even get blown out.

    Even if Winston flirts with a triple-double in a low-turnover effort, though, there's still a chance the Wildcats simply "out-athletic" the Spartans for a win. It all depends on whether EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards are going to prove that they belong in a Kentucky starting frontcourt. If that duo and Nate Sestina can keep Xavier Tillman in check, the Wildcats will be No. 1 in the next AP poll.

    Prediction: Kentucky 81, Michigan State 79


    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.


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