Champions Classic Previews & Predictions

- Matt Cox

With a lackluster opening weekend in college basketball now in the books, the season will unofficially begin for the more casual, less degenerate college hoops fans when four blue bloods - Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan St. - do battle at the United Center in Chicago on Tuesday night. The annual tradition began in 2011 with this year's double header marking the 3rd time the event has been held in Chicago. Before breaking down the individual matchups, let's take a quick glance at how each of the perennial powers have fared against each other over the past six seasons...

It's worth noting that this year's slate of Duke / Sparty and Kentucky / Kansas replicates the 2014 Champions Classic - you might recall Kentucky laid waste to Kansas in a 32 point destruction of the Jayhawks, while Coach K continued his dominance of Tom Izzo with a 10-point victory over the Spartans.

Duke vs. Michigan State

Initial Notes & Thoughts: The Blue Devils and the Spartans steamrolled in their opening contests this weekend with Duke slaughtering Elon and Utah Valley while Michigan State easily dispatched North Florida in East Lansing. Both squads appeared to be firing on all cylinders and fully flexed their depth of talent against inferior competition. Something's gotta give when the two heavyweights take the floor tonight at the United Center and if the recent bouts between these two are any indication of what we might witness, it certainly does not bode well for Sparty. 

Coach K has dominated Izzo to the tune of a 10-1 lifetime head-to-head record, with the most recent victory coming at home last year by a margin of 9 points in the Big Ten / ACC challenge. It's worth noting that Bridges struggled mightily in that game - at least, by his standards - finishing with an inefficient 11 points before ultimately fouling out with 6 minutes left in regulation.

Duke on Offense: Duke's starting 5 has looked impeccable through the first two games of the 2017-18 season: Marvin Bagley's otherworldly athleticism seems almost unfair, Grayson Allen is off to a hyper-efficient start now fully healthy and rejuvenated, Wendell Carter is showing off his deceptively smooth jumper and asserting himself as the alpha rim protector on defense, Gary Trent is sizzling-hot from downtown (7/13 so far from 3 this year) and Trevon Duval is the glue connecting all the parts together with an outrageous 20:1 assist to turnover ratio.

The bottom-line is that this looks like a well-oiled machine poised to have a coming out party tonight if Sparty comes out even a tiny bit flat. Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson are one of only a handful of front line units in the country that can keep the Bagley / Carter combo from going bananas, but the question will be how the matchups sort themselves out at the guard and wing spots.

Izzo's squads are always well-positioned to provide early off-ball help on dribble penetration, so Allen and Trent should get plenty of open looks from the outside if Duval is able to break down Cassius Winston and / or Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn from the point in attack. While both Winston and Nairn are both solid on-ball defenders, they have yet to check someone with the explosiveness of Duval - Izzo would be smart to just simply sag off and go under all ball screens to try and expose the shaky long range shooting ability of Duval. Both Allen and Trent are excellent slashers in their own right and should have a slight advantage when being guarded by Josh Langford and Matt McQuaid, as well as Bridges on the perimeter whenever he plays the 3.

Michigan St. on Offense: Sparty's offensive execution is typically ultra-precise regardless of who's on the floor, but Izzo added a whole new dynamic with the insertion of Jaren Jackson to the core rotation. The future lottery pick has only scratched the surface of his potential, but North Florida got a dose of how terrorizing he can be around the rim when Jackson hauled in 13 boards and swatted 4 shots in his college debut). The area of his game that he's yet to put on display - and where I think he may find some open looks against an athletic equal in Bagley - is his outside jumper. Per an article at the Athletic, which cites stats provided by Krossover, Jackson's proven at the lower levels that he's more than capable of stretching the defense when necessary:

Showing off this part of his offensive repertoire may be needed tonight - Jackson will have a tougher time beating up the Devils on the boards with Bagley and Carter patrolling the paint and I foresee his athletic superiority being somewhat neutralized by one of the few weapons in college basketball with the physical tools needed to defend him 1-v-1 in Bagley.

The one area I do think the Spartans can have some success in is with bully ball by way of Nick Ward post ups. While Ward will give up a few inches of length to the 6'10 Carter - that is, assuming Carter is who Coach K opts to slot on him - Ward is a crafty and physical operator on the low block that can negate any size disadvantages and also possesses a thicker and more physical frame than Carter. Carter is an excellent rim protector on helpside drives, but his pure 1-v-1 post defense ability has yet to be tested thus far this season. Izzo loves to run half-court action to get Ward in favorable spots down low to go to work, so look for the Spartans to feed their interior beast early and often. 

Key Factor(s): While a one game sample size is by no means sufficient to jump to any reasonable conclusions Izzo seems content to play Ward roughly roughly 20 minutes a game this season, especially given the depth he has upfront. He played 16 minutes in the season opener and only played 14 minutes in last year's matchup with Duke at Cameron Indoor. This means there will be a split in terms of when Sparty has Bridges at the 4 sans Ward and when Bridges is on the wing with both Jackson and Ward down low (which is what Izzo started with last game).

The problem here is while an ultra big lineup of Jackson, Ward and Bridges would give most teams fits, Gary Trent is strong and physical enough to keep Bridges from beasting him down low and quick enough to cover him out on the perimeter. Izzo's more perimeter-oriented lineup counter with McQuaid at the 3 also has a limited upside, given the more athletic Trent could exploit McQuaid off the bounce on the offensive side of the ball. Coach K can also throw the underappreciated Javin DeLaurier on Bridges, who's another plus athlete with the beef needed to contain Bridges in the half-court.

Final Predictions: While I typically tend to favor teams with more roster continuity in the first few weeks of the season (which would point to taking Sparty in this matchup), the 80 minutes we've observed so far from Duke completely debunks my theory. The Blue Devils already look completely in sync, displaying a scary level of role awareness and role acceptance so early in the season. The sheer disparity in athleticism, particularly on the perimeter with Duval, Allen and Trent, should enable Duke to have success breaking down the first line of Sparty's perimeter defense and open up a some drive-and-kick, drive-and-dump and lob opportunities at the rim.

Against the Spread: Duke -2
Over / Under: Over 157.5

Kansas vs. Kentucky

Initial Notes & Thoughts: While Kansas' dismantling of Tennessee State Friday night flew relatively under the radar, Kentucky's struggles against Utah Valley (down 9 at half) and Vermont (came down to last possession) both aired on national television. We here at 3MW have been skeptical of Kentucky's offensive ceiling given the glaring void of any proven outside shooting - those concerns may be now coming to fruition. The Wildcats attempted just 9 triples in their Sunday tilt with Vermont and have connected on a pedestrian 33% of their 3s thus far - but it was their inefficiency from close range that was a bit puzzling. UK converted just 45% of their 2-point attempts this weekend, relying heavily on a non-stop rim invasion to get multiple 2nd and 3rd shot opportunities from point blank range.

On the other hand, the Jayhawks ran over Tennessee State in their season opener on Friday despite their blue-chip freshman Billy Preston being forced to watch from the sidelines after Self suspended him for missing curfew. KU put up a ridiculous 1.24 points per possession against the Tigers, fueled by a blistering hot 43% shooting display from downtown and a precise 75% conversion rate inside the arc. 6 Jayhawks finished in double figures as Devonte Graham's 12 assists help spread the wealth to the multitude of scoring weapons along the perimeter and to big Udoka Azubuike down low.

Kansas on Offense: Getting Preston back is enormous for the Jayhawks who will go toe-to-toe with an overwhelmingly long Kentucky defense. In the Vermont game, ESPN showed a graphic of the Kentucky starters' wingspan measurements multiple times - coupled with Jimmy Dykes 'Hamburger Helper' demonstration during a quick segment cutaway -  to reinforce just how terrifying the Wildcats' length is across all five positions. UK surrendered a lot of 3s to Vermont and Utah Valley, but Calipari typically prioritizes hard close outs on the perimeter to limit long range opportunities for the opposition. This will be critical to shutting down open looks for the laundry list of potent shooters for Kansas, including Graham, Lagerald Vick, Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk

It's worth noting that Calipari made a bold call to mix in some zone defense against Utah Valley when they were stumbling in the early going - a move that paid dividends and helped the Cats spark a run to cut the deficit and eventually regain the lead. Calipari was displeased with the perimeter defense in both games over the weekend, specifically citing frustrations with Quade Green's lack of containment. Even with the all the length along the perimeter, trying to zone a Kansas team with multiple shooters on the floor at all times would be a dangerous game and one I don't see Calipari flirting with. That means a heavy dose of man-to-man will test the 1-v-1 playmaking ability of the Jayhawk guards and wings, as well as put pressure on the Kentucky bigs to defend the always effective high-low action that Self has patented over the years. The Jayhawks tormented a rather stout Missouri front court inside in one of the Hurricane relief exhibition matches a couple weeks back, proving that simply having size and length in the paint isn't sufficient to slowing down the high-low sets.

Kentucky on Offense: This side of the ball will come down to a battle of the boards. Calipari has yet to establish a clearly defined depth chart, but Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killyea-Jones, Nick Richards and Kevin Knox will need to crash the glass to take advantage of Kansas' small-ball lineup which often features an undersized Svi at the 4. KU's serviceable backup Mitch Lightfoot looked solid in the preseason, but he remains the only low post option off-the-pine who can spell Udoka Azubuike if he gets in foul trouble. Azubuike will need to play 30+ minutes at a minimum for Kansas to feel good about their chances tonight and if the Jayhawks can prevent any real blood bath on the offensive glass, they should have some success countering the other way in transition - especially if the Wildcats send multiple bodies to the boards on every shot, leaving them exposed retreating back on defense.

Key Factor(s): Kansas's ball security is the one area that Kentucky has a chance to exploit. With Frank Mason absent, the other Jayhawk guards / wings now have to share some of the ball handling and playmaking responsibilities whenever Graham doesn't have the rock. While I don't foresee this being a lingering issue all year long for KU, they did struggle with Tennessee State's funky pressure in the season opener coughing it up a whopping 20 times (Vick and Newman turned it over 4 times each). Calipari isn't likely to showcase any exotic pressure trapping schemes, but the premier length and athleticism could be a shock to the Kansas guards and cause some disruption- if UK can get their hands in passing lanes to deflect passes and jump start fast breaks going the other way, this could be a excellent way for the Wildcats to get easy looks in transition and help take pressure off the half-court defense.

Final Predictions: With the way both teams are trending, it seems likely a ton of the early money will come in heavy on the side of Kansas, which should drive the line up quickly in favor of the Wildcats. I think there is value in Kentucky if the number gets too inflated (perhaps KU -7 or higher), but if the line hovers around -5 or lower, I will ride with the Jayhawks. From a matchup perspective, there is a valid case to be made for Kentucky, but I will continue to stay true to my initial strategy of fading the Wildcats early this season until Calipari figures out how to optimize his rotations. Both Self and Graham should have vivid memories of the beatdown Kentucky handed them back in 2014, so the revenge factor should ensure the Jayhawks are fully juiced up  when the ball is tipped this evening.

Against the Spread: Kansas -5
Over / Under: Under 156