Previewing and Predicting the 2020 Men's College Basketball Champions Classic

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 1, 2020

Kentucky's John Calipari with Devin Askew (2), Olivier Sarr (30) and Isaiah Jackson (23)
Kentucky's John Calipari with Devin Askew (2), Olivier Sarr (30) and Isaiah Jackson (23)James Crisp/Associated Press

It's the first Tuesday of the men's college basketball season, and that means it's Champions Classic time—albeit a bit later on the calendar than usual and in two different venues.

No. 6 Duke will host No. 8 Michigan State for the 7:30 p.m. ET tipoff, followed by No. 7 Kansas vs. No. 20 Kentucky in Indianapolis.

We're still smack dab in the middle of a pandemic, though. That means the first game will be played at Cameron Indoor Stadium without the Cameron Crazies. And sportscaster Dan Shulman said during Sunday's Richmond-Kentucky game that he will do the play-by-play call for the second contest from Charlotte, North Carolina, while Dick Vitale provides the color commentary from his home in Sarasota, Florida.

It's all going to feel weird, but it's also going to feel oh so right to watch two games between these four titans of the sport.

Based on what we've seen through the first few days of the season, what should we expect from each of these Final Four contenders Tuesday night?

First, sloppiness.

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Michigan State committed 30 turnovers in its two wins over Eastern Michigan and Notre Dame, and it was the most sure-handed of this bunch. Kansas coughed up the ball 31 times between the loss to Gonzaga and the win over Saint Joseph's. Kentucky gave it away 15 times in beating Morehead State and 21 times in its loss to Richmond. And while Duke only played one game, it committed a staggering 22 turnovers in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over Coppin State.

That's hardly a surprise considering none of these four teams was great at avoiding turnovers last season and each one is adjusting to life with a new starting point guard. Cassius Winston, Tre Jones, Ashton Hagans and Devon Dotson aren't walking through that door, and there was bound to be an adjustment period in the ball movement and crispness departments for these new-look offenses.

We're used to that with this event, though.

Every once in a while, one of the four teams will put on a clinic. Duke made 12 triples and only committed four turnovers in its 118-84 shellacking of Kentucky in 2018. And early on in its 38-1 campaign in 2014-15, Kentucky suffocated Kansas in a 72-40 laugher. For the most part, though, it's a bunch of freshmen and sophomores facing a bunch of other freshmen and sophomores very early in the season, and it shows. Highlights abound, but so do miscommunications and avoidable turnovers.

If you're going into Tuesday night with hopes of finding the team that would win the NCAA tournament if it was played this weekend, you're likely to be disappointed.

Duke's Wendell Moore
Duke's Wendell MooreGerry Broome/Associated Press

However, take the event for what it isan early showcase for talented but raw athletesand you can be impressed while trying to glean information that will be useful for the rest of the season.

Take Kentucky, for example.

The Wildcats had a nightmarish performance against a much more experienced Richmond team Sunday afternoon. They shot 0-of-10 from three-point range, missed 13 free throws and managed just five assists against the aforementioned 21 turnovers. Kentucky did dominate the Spiders on the glass, but some good all those offensive rebounds do when you can't shoot and you can't pass to the correct team.

It's a miracle the Wildcats led early in the second half before things spiraled out of control.

But after a dud like that, we could find out what sort of resiliency and potential these 'Cats have. Will a team leader and a calming presence emerge from the ashes, or will this just be another game full of hero ball, ill-advised drives and forced shots when the going gets tough?

Kentucky doesn't need to win the game to win the night so long as it looks less disjointed.

Each of the other three teams is also looking for signs of early improvement.

Can Kansas hold its own in the paint on defense, or is getting embarrassed by Gonzaga's Drew Timme and its driving guards going to be a trend this season?

Is Rocket Watts the answer at point guard for Michigan State, or is Tom Izzo going to need to get creative at that position after four years of counting on Winston to lead the offense?

Aside from Jalen Johnson and DJ Steward, what is Duke bringing to the table? Will the veteran guards (Jordan Goldwire and Joey Baker) continue to start, or is it just a matter of time before Coach K hands the reins to Steward and Jeremy Roach?

Again, we aren't going to get full answers to these questions Tuesday night. These are essay questions, and if we're lucky, we'll get rough drafts of the thesis statements.

Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Rocket Watts
Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Rocket WattsAl Goldis/Associated Press

However, marquee games early in the season often serve as pressure cookers for these retooling and reloading teams. And you know we can't help ourselves from rushing to conclusions about teams after watching about 5 percent of their games. Heck, we didn't even make it to halftime of Gonzaga's season opener before trying to crown the Zags as the clear-cut favorite to win it all.

As far as predictions go, it's hard not to like Duke over Michigan State in the opener.

In nine previous regular-season matchups, Mike Krzyzewski is a perfect 9-0 against Tom Izzo. Duke may be young and sloppy, but Michigan State has consistently had one of the least turnover-forcing defenses among major-conference teams over the past half-decade. And Crazies or no Crazies, home-court advantage has to count for something, right?

That said, the battle between Michigan State's Joey Hauser and Duke's Jalen Johnson should be a great one. The former could make things interesting by snapping out of his 0-of-6 start from three-point range, but Johnson has already proved himself a difference-maker on both ends of the floor with his 19 points, 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocks against Coppin State.

And in the latter game, Kansas will have a little too much offense for Kentucky.

The Jayhawks put up at least 90 points in each of their first two games, and they can come at you in waves with a rotation that legitimately runs 10 deep. They don't have the same star power they had last year with Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, but having highly touted JUCO transfer Tyon Grant-Foster and redshirt freshman and former top-100 recruit Dajuan Harris as backups to the backups is one heck of a luxury.

Kentucky will bring intensity on defense and on the offensive glass, but it will likely be a few weeks before this offense is firing at anything close to full speed. The only returnee who scored last season, Keion Brooks Jr., has yet to even be cleared for 5-on-5 practice, per The Athletic's Kyle Tucker.

Either way, it's going to be a fun night full of hot takes, cold spells and a warm spot on the couch for the unofficial start of the season. Thanksgiving weekend gave us a few solid games and stellar performances, but the Champions Classic is when things really get underway.


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