Arguably the best preseason college basketball event returns this evening, albeit in a slightly different setting than we’re accustomed to seeing thanks to the pandemic, when the Champions Classic tips off with a pair of matchups between Michigan State and Duke, and Kansas and Kentucky.
Typically, we’ve seen this showcase be the informal start of the new college basketball season with these four bluebloods meeting on a neutral court to test out their early preseason rankings. This season, only Kansas and Kentucky will be playing on a neutral floor in Indianapolis with Michigan State meeting Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium with no fans or media in attendance. That will make tonight’s matchups all the more interesting.
Speaking of those matchups, let’s dive right into tonight’s action and kick off the month of December with a pair of Best Bets for tonight’s Champions Classic.
(8) Michigan State at (6) Duke
Game to be played without fans in attendance
Spread: Duke -3.5
Total: O/U 149.5
Time/TV: 7:30 PM ET, ESPN
In the first matchup of the evening, 8th ranked Michigan State (2-0) travels to a Cameron Indoor Stadium to meet 6th ranked Duke (1-0).
The Spartans are coming off of an impressive 80-70 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate, as they at one point in the second half would lead by 22 points thanks to a 26-0 run that closed out the first half and spilled into the second half.
The Spartans defense would lock down the Fighting Irish, keeping them scoreless for over nine minutes of game action. They looked noticeably sharper in their second game of the season, following their season-opening victory over Eastern Michigan.
The same could not be said for the new-look Blue Devils in their season-opening tune-up against Coppin State. While Duke did open the season with a 10-point victory, they were favored by 39.5-points and seemed to struggle on the defensive end of the floor, particularly in defending the perimeter where Coppin State would hit 10 three-point shots on the night.
After leading by 17 at the break, the Devils would be outscored in the second half 43-36. Not exactly what you’d like to see against a team that went 11-20 playing out of the MEAC a season ago.
Considering the very unorthodox offseason college basketball has experienced, however, a rusty start out of the gates in the season opener is not the worst thing in the world, nor was it a shock to see. It goes without saying though that Duke will need to play significantly better this evening to avoid a rare home loss.
That unorthodox offseason will spill into the regular season, however, and we get our first real taste of that this evening when this game is played without any fans or media in attendance. In a non-pandemic setting, this game would be on a neutral floor with two rowdy fan bases trading cheers and jeers, and if Michigan State ever came to Cameron Indoor for a basketball game, the energy from the crowd would be at a different level.
We’re not going to get that tonight, and we will see for the first time this season how well Duke can adjust to not having a boisterous crowd behind them to fuel their momentum.
Fortunately for Duke, Coach K will once again have a loaded stable of freshmen to lean on not only tonight but throughout the season. Five-star recruit Jalen Johnson appears to be the best of the bunch and may begin to emerge as the leader of the team, and DJ Steward could become the best sixth man in the country (24 points, 9 boards against Coppin State). Sophomores Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt are the elder statesmen of the starting five and will be counted on tonight to help the young freshmen in the scoring column.
Michigan State, on the other hand, boasts a very experienced group and looks to resume their standing as a Top 10 defensive unit, and their recent matchup against Notre Dame reiterated this even further.
The Spartans starting five is equal parts talented and experienced. Three juniors and one senior make up Izzo’s starting unit, with Marquette transfer Joey Hauser already off to a fast start with a pair of double-doubles to start his Michigan State career. Joshua Langford and Aaron Henry give the Spartans a pair of dynamic scoring threats, and sophomore Rocket Watts looks to be the next great Tom Izzo point guard in the making.
This will be a phenomenal matchup and one where we will certainly miss the atmosphere from the Cameron Crazies. Michigan State will once again be a strong contender in the Big Ten, but I believe Duke bounces back tonight and plays with a much sharper focus. We’ve seen how teams start slow out of the gates across every sport making its return from the pandemic and I think Duke is not much different.
Oddsmakers have this line sitting anywhere between 3 and 3.5 points tonight and I think that prediction is dead on. I’m taking the Dukies to cover narrowly and to pass their first true test of the season. I also like the over a lot tonight as well.
Prediction: Duke 78, Michigan State 74
Best Bet: Duke -3.5; OVER 149.5
(7) Kansas vs. (20) Kentucky
Game to be played at neutral court (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN)
Spread: Kansas -4.5
Total: O/U 143.5
Time/TV: 9:30 PM ET, ESPN
There probably isn’t a tougher team to play to open the season, especially a season with the dark clouds of a pandemic hanging above it, than #1 Gonzaga, but that’s exactly the fate that Kansas endured when they suffered a 102-90 loss at the hands of the top-ranked team in the country on Thanksgiving Day.
Kansas did rebound nicely the following day with a 94-72 blowout victory over St. Joseph’s with sophomore Christian Braun chipping in a 30-point, eight-rebound day for Rock Chalk Jayhawk.
Now the Jayhawks prepare for a date with 20th ranked Kentucky, coming off of their first loss of the season when they fell 76-64 to a dangerous Richmond team full of experience.
This isn’t a different script than we are accustomed to seeing from Kentucky, however. Once again, John Calipari has a roster stacked to the brim with freshmen talent, and once again that young team is going through some early growing pains in the beginning stages of the season. Remember, this is a Kentucky team that lost by 3 at home to Evansville early last season, so it does take a bit of time for Calipari’s teams to get their footing and for their young talent to gel as a cohesive unit.
That steep learning curve the young ‘Cats are on presently is not likely to remedy itself tonight. Against the Spiders, Cal’s ‘Cats didn’t make a single three-point shot (0 for 10) and are back to struggling at the free-throw line, shooting just 62% from the charity stripe to begin the year.
While Kentucky does boast one of the best freshmen in college basketball, and a possible #1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft in BJ Boston (17.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg), the Wildcats roster is still extremely young and trying to figure out who they are right now.
Kansas, on the other hand, already has a better idea of the type of team they can be thanks in large part to that brutal season opener. Gonzaga is every bit as good as advertised and Kansas, to their credit, played very hard and erased an early double-digit deficit before simply tiring out down the stretch. Kentucky is not Gonzaga, and Kansas should reap the benefits of a young team still growing on the fly.
Look for the Jayhawks to win, and to win a little comfortably tonight. They defend better, they shoot better and are just overall the better team at this point in the season.
Don’t fret too much about Kentucky if they do lose tonight, however, as they will be their usual dangerous self as the season goes on.
Prediction: Kansas 81, Kentucky 70
Best Bet: Kansas -4.5