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Joe Boozell | | November 15, 2016

Preview: Looking ahead to tonight's Champions Classic

  Given Duke's list of injuries, big man Amile Jefferson must have a big game tonight.

For the first time since 2013, the Champions Classic field does not feature a team that made the Final Four in the season prior. But that doesn’t make tonight’s event any less majestic.

Kentucky takes on Michigan State and Duke will square off against Kansas at Madison Square Garden tonight -- the Champions Classic is a premier event that rarely disappoints. Here’s a rundown of its five-year history:

Champions Classic History
Year Game 1 Game 2
2011 Duke 74, Michigan State 69 Kentucky 75, Kansas 65
2012 Michigan State 67, Kansas 64 Duke 75, Kentucky 68
2013 Michigan State 78, Kentucky 74 Kansas 94, Duke 83
2014 Duke 81, Michigan State 71 Kentucky 72, Kansas 40
2015 Kentucky 74, Duke 63 Michigan State 79, Kansas 73
All-Time Standings
Team Record
Duke 3-2
Kentucky 3-2
Michigan State 3-2
Kansas 1-4

Can Kansas get off the schneid against a shorthanded Duke squad? Can Michigan State overcome a devastating Armed Forces Classic loss to Arizona?

Let’s break down tonight’s matchups.

Kentucky vs. Michigan State (7 p.m. ET)

In most years, a Kentucky vs. Michigan State matchup would pit a young, star-studded Wildcats squad against a wily, veteran-laden Spartan group.

Not so in 2016. Tonight’s Champions Classic opener is young vs. young, and while both teams are supremely talented, it’s tough to beat Kentucky’s freshmen with… well, a bunch of freshmen.

Miles Bridges is awesome, and though he’s not the best player in college basketball, one could argue that he’s the most fun to watch:

Tom Izzo uses Bridges at power forward, which is smart. Bridges represents a major mismatch against just about any team in America; he had the jets to blow by Arizona big man Lauri Markkanen (who is a decent athlete, for what it’s worth) whenever he felt like it on Friday, and he’ll outmuscle smaller wings.

But he may meet his match against Kentucky. John Calipari will likely start Bam Adebayo on Bridges, a Tristan Thompson type whose primary appeal is his ability to guard players of all sizes and skillsets. Few possess the size and agility Adebayo does; with that said, the Wildcat freshman must avoid foul trouble at all costs. Adebayo only played 15 minutes against Stephen F. Austin because he picked up four fouls – if UK has to use Derek Willis on Bridges, Michigan State fans might like their chances.

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Fortunately for Calipari, he probably won’t have to. Kentucky brings Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones off of the bench, and while they probably won’t be able to stop Bridges, they’ll have a fighting chance. Most teams don’t have one player you’d feel confident in throwing at someone like Bridges; the Wildcats have three, and their defensive versatility is major reason why they’re a top-five team.

This entire preview has revolved around Bridges thus far, and that’s because, well, who else is scaring you on Michigan State these days?

The Spartans need much more from Eron Harris than they got against Arizona. Harris went 3-for-8 from the field and appeared to be in Izzo’s dog house; the senior only played 20 minutes, and he saw little action in the first half. If Michigan State is going to hang around with Kentucky’s backcourt gunners, Harris will need to step up. He has the talent to do it, but he’ll have his hands full on both ends of the floor.

In the end, Kentucky seems as equipped as anyone to hound Bridges, and the Wildcats’ backcourt trio of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe inspires much more confidence than Harris, Tum Tum Nairn and Matt McQuaid. With that said, McQuaid and freshman guard Josh Langford showed flashes against Arizona, and perhaps freshman post-up hub Nick Ward will force Calipari to play bigger than he wants to.

But Kentucky just needs to play a sound game in order to win; Michigan State will need a few unlikely heroes to answer the bell. Don’t put it past the Spartans, but the Wildcats appear to have an edge here.

Kansas vs. Duke (9 p.m. ET)

This game should be awesome, but Duke’s injury situation is a bummer:

Duke still has more than enough to win with, but it’s won’t be easy against a Kansas squad that runs nine deep.

With Tatum, Giles and Bolden all out, Coach K’s rotation might look as short as it did last season, when he only played six guys heavy minutes.

Chase Jeter, Duke’s enigmatic sophomore, is going to have to thrive. Jeter has all the requisite physical tools to succeed, but he needs to cut down on mental lapses; if Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t like what he sees from Jeter early, expect him to use four guards around Amile Jefferson.

For Kansas, it boils down to this: Can the Jayhawks exploit the Blue Devils’ undermanned front line? A year ago, Perry Ellis would have been salivating at this matchup, but Kansas is a perimeter-oriented team this season.

It would be nice to see Bill Self feature Carlton Bragg tonight. Kansas’ new starting power forward went 6-for-7 from the floor against Indiana, but only played 18 minutes due to foul trouble. If Coach K downsizes, as he’s prone to doing, Bragg’s going to have either Matt Jones or Luke Kennard defending him. Huge advantage Jayhawks, if so. And this is where a veteran savvy backcourt is so crucial – Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are fully aware of their opponent’s limitations, and they need to be strategically cruel against the wounded Blue Devils.

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Duke played more zone than ever last season – partially to conserve its short rotation, but also because they didn’t always have the personnel to stick teams man-to-man. Given its injuries, we could see some zone tonight, though giving open looks to shooters like Graham and Mason is a risky proposition. Expect Krzyzewski to dare Josh Jackson to beat the Blue Devils from the perimeter.

While it would be nice to have studs like Tatum, Giles and Bolden on the offensive end, Duke probably won’t struggle to score points as long as it surrounds Grayson Allen with capable shooters. This poor Kansas defense, right? Duke and Indiana are the leaders in the clubhouse to pace the nation in offensive efficiency, and these are KU’s first two opponents.

With that said, Graham and Mason are fighters, and Jackson is a beast defensively. The Jayhawks have the potential to switch any action against Duke; Self didn’t utilize that strategy much against the Hoosiers, but with a rim-attacker as relentless as Allen, expect to see more of it tonight.

But it all circles back to Jeter. If Duke can match Kansas’ size on the front line, the Blue Devils will confidently put their backcourt up against anyone’s – even a perimeter trio as good as the Jayhawks’.

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