Let’s dive into the Champions Classic and get prepared for one of the best nights in college hoops.
Here's what to watch on each side of the floor in both games.
Kansas vs. Michigan State
When Kansas is on offense....
Kansas has a clear size advantage over Michigan State if Nick Ward and Kenny Goins start at the five and the four, respectively. Goins is a solid defender, but Ward isn’t in the lineup for his defense. Udoka Azubuike and Dedric Lawson are both great players and excellent complements to one another.
Ward has the girth to hang with Azubuike (as well as anyone can), but he’s giving up five inches to the Kansas center. Tom Izzo knows this, and probably won’t leave Ward alone on Azubuike every time he gets a post touch. He’s probably going to help. If that happens, it comes down to whether or not the Jayhawks can hit open looks on the perimeter.
Kansas has guys who can knock down the 3, and the inside-outside versatility is a reason why everyone is so high on them. There’s no clear weakness on either side of the floor. Double Azubuike or Lawson at your own risk; LaGerald Vick, K.J. Lawson, Marcus Garrett and others can burn you from distance.
Michigan State matches up with Kansas just fine on the perimeter, but the interior will present challenges. Izzo is known for using a bunch of guys in his rotation. Sometimes, that’s cause for frustration. But it might pay off against Kansas; fouling Azubuike may be a wise strategy. He made 41.3 percent of his free throws last year.
If Michigan State is going to double Azubuike it needs to hope for Kansas to miss open shots or force turnovers. If the Spartans don’t double, they’re likely in four a lot of dunks or a lot of opposing foul shots.
When Michigan State is on offense...
Michigan State has one clear advantage, and that’s at the point guard position. Cassius Winston was one of the most underrated players in college basketball last season, averaging 12.6 points and 6.9 assists on 51 percent shooting. He made almost half of his 3-pointers.
Charlie Moore will likely draw the Winston assignment, which is a tough one in his first game as a Jayhawk. Michigan State would be wise to put Winston in ball screens and let him go to work, picking apart the defense as he sees fit.
Now, that’s not usually how the Spartans operate. Izzo prefers an equal opportunity offense and would rather run prepared sets.
But Kansas might be the best defensive team in the country. It has length and experience at every position; point guard is the only clear edge Michigan State has. Look for Bill Self to slot Vick, a plus perimeter defender, on Joshua Langford. Langford is going to need to have a huge game in order for Michigan State to win, and he can. He averaged 11.7 points and made 40.4 percent of his 3s last year.
On most nights, Michigan State would have success dumping the ball to Ward and letting him go to work. He may be able to get Azubuike into foul trouble, but as mentioned before, he doesn’t have a physical advantage. Kansas might have Lawson ignore Goins until he proves he can do damage.
It’s going to need to be the Winston and Langford show in order for the Spartans to score consistently.
Prediction: Kansas 73, Michigan State 65
Duke vs. Kentucky
When Duke is on offense...
Kentucky should pack the paint until Duke proves it can consistently make outside shots. Because as athletic as Kentucky is, Duke is always going to have the physical advantage in 2018-19.
Leaving a defender 1-on-1 with Zion Williamson and no help is a recipe for disaster. Same with R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. Kentucky’s best strategy is to try and bait Duke into Marques Bolden post-ups or Tre Jones 3-pointers. Easier said than done, but you can’t let the Blue Devils’ three studs build up heads up steam and rim rock.
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Duke will have counters to this. It can pull Bolden, put Williamson at center and slot another shooter like Alex O’Connell into the lineup. One thing John Calipari has going for him: depth. The Wildcats shouldn’t get tired because they have so many capable guys. Most teams might have one player capable of guarding Barrett for a whole game. The Wildcats will have the luxury of throwing plenty of bodies at him.
Keep an eye on how many minutes Mike Krzyzewski plays with a traditional center, like Bolden or Javin DeLaurier, in the lineup. It’s worth watching how those lineups fare compared to Williamson at center lineups. It feels like the latter is the best way to optimize all of Duke’s parts, but time will tell.
When Kentucky is on offense...
We don’t really know how Kentucky’s offense is going to look since it’s going to have so many options, but here’s what we do know: we’ll see a lot of Travis and P.J. Washington together, and Tyler Herro can stroke it. Herro adds an element that Kentucky hasn’t had in recent years: he’s a lights-out shooter who can scurry around screens and hit shots while off balance. He’s going to make life a lot easier for his surrounding teammates.
If Bolden is going to play big minutes for Duke, he’s going to have to make an impact as a rim protector. That’s the only way to justify the time. He’s done so in flashes, but not consistently enough throughout the course of his career. On paper, this looks like the best combination of shooting and experience Kentucky has had in a while. Keldon Johnson, who figures to play heavy minutes, is also dangerous from distance.
Like Duke, Kentucky is going to have to establish a pecking order. Ashton Hagans played more than Quade Green during the Wildcats’ final exhibition game but only attempted one shot. Duke will likely throw some zone into the mix, and it will be interesting to see how the Wildcats respond.
If that happens, look for Washington and Travis to unleash their interior passing skills. This end presents the most uncertainty of any in the Champions Classic.
Prediction: Duke 80, Kentucky 77