Here at last, here at last. The 2016-17 college basketball season tips off on Friday, and we have a terrific slate of games to get psyched about.
The headliners play at the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu. Four bluebloods are set to do battle – Arizona takes on Michigan State, while Kansas will face Indiana.
Here is everything you need to know about tonight’s matchups.
7 p.m. ET: No. 10 Arizona vs. No 12 Michigan State
Allonzo Trier’s absence hurts the Wildcats, but this is the youngest Michigan State team we’ve seen in a long time. Arizona absolutely has a shot to win this game.But it’s going to be difficult. Without Trier and Ray Smith, Arizona loses two guys who can puncture the first line of defense and create opportunities for themselves and others.
The good news for Sean Miller: he’s compiled a deep and talented roster in Tucson, and that depth will need to come into play against the Spartans. Freshmen Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins were originally pegged for complementary roles; now, they’ll need to take on more responsibilities. Are they up to the task?
Time will tell. For Arizona to win, though, freshman big man Lauri Markkanen is going to need to live up to his billing. No pressure, sport. Markkanen is a 7-footer with an effortless 3-point stroke and interior scoring chops; with Gavin Schilling sidelined, the Spartans have no obvious candidate to stop him.
A few weeks ago, Arizona fans had to be salivating at the prospect of using Markkanen at center and playing five-out basketball. With the full array of pieces intact, that unit would have been a problem for opposing defenses.
Without Trier and Smith, though, the proposition of downsizing becomes risky. The Wildcats could run out a lineup of Markkanen, Kadeem Allen, Alkins, Simmons and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, but playing Alkins at power forward is a heavy burden to put on a 220-pound freshman.
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Michigan State won’t use uber-athletic freshman Miles Bridges on Markkanen from the tip, but if the latter gets hot, don’t be surprised to see this matchup in crunch time. Bridges figures to start at small forward alongside Eron Harris and Tum Tum Nairn, but the Spartans’ frontcourt depth is shaky without Schilling and Ben Carter.
All in all, these teams look quite a bit alike. For me, here’s what it comes down to: Arizona needs Markkanen to be awesome out of the gate more than Michigan State needs Bridges to be awesome out of the gate. Placing such lofty expectations on any freshman from the jump isn’t totally fair; heck, even Brandon Ingram struggled in November last season before becoming one of the premier players in the country by March.
For most, transitioning to the college game is hard. Both of these teams are young, but as of now, the Spartans’ veterans inspire a bit more hope than the Wildcats’ seasoned players do.
9 p.m. ET: No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 11 Indiana
The Jayhawks take on the Hoosiers in what should be an excellent nightcap.
We sort of already know what we have in Kansas. You’ve seen this movie before – Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham will make life difficult for opposing guards and provide a steady presence on offense; Bill Self will utilize a deep, talented rotation and ride the hot hands during crunch time; and the Jayhawks will have a supremely talented freshman wing.
This year’s version is Josh Jackson, and college hoops fans are in for a treat if Tom Crean decides to throw OG Anunoby at him. The closest thing college basketball has to Kawhi Leonard, Anunoby is a long, strong, agile defender; there are few players in the country he can’t stick. Jackson is going to be an excellent player, but if he can show out with Anunoby guarding him, Kansas fans will have to be elated.
It sounds overly simple, and perhaps that’s because it is – if Indiana is going to pull this out, it will need to hit outside shots. That’s not easy against Kansas. Mason, Graham and Jackson form a trio of tenacious, smart defenders that close out on shooters with effort and precision. Opposing 3-point bombers made just 32.5 percent of their looks against the Jayhawks last season; Self’s squad will make you work for every bucket.
The Hoosiers have shooting, but they might not be as lethal from behind the 3-point arc as they were in 2015-16. Indiana ranked fourth in the nation in 3-point percentage a year ago (41.6 percent), but loses Yogi Ferrell (42 percent), Max Bielfeldt (44.6 percent) and Nick Zeisloft (41.7 percent). James Blackmon’s return helps (46.3 percent in limited 2015-16 action), but beyond he and Robert Johnson, IU will need a few more shooters to step up. That may happen as this season progresses, but it’s a lot to ask against a vaunted Kansas defense in the first game of the year.
Indiana may be able to hang its hat on an interior advantage, as Landen Lucas will attempt to contain sophomore center Thomas Bryant. Perhaps no player improved throughout the course of last season as much as Bryant; early in 2015-16, he was lost in pick-and-roll defense and wasn’t much more than a cleanup man on offense. By the end of the season, Bryant was a solid rim protector capable of hanging with most guards on switches, and offensively, he was a bona fide stud. IU’s springy center shot 70.7 percent on 2-point attempts in 2015-16, and he’s as good of a roll man as there is in the country. He also showed flashes of a burgeoning post game.
Lucas is a tough defender, but Indiana could potentially exploit this matchup. In Kansas’ final NCAA tournament game, Villanova center Daniel Ochefu went 5-of-8 from the floor for 10 points. The Jayhawks are willing to leave Lucas on an island, and if Bryant can produce similar efficiency to Ochefu with increased volume, Indiana could be onto something.
In the end, though, Kansas’ has a wider margin for error than the Hoosiers. This should be a fantastic game, but the slight edge goes to the Jayhawks.