Champions Classic Preview: Four Top-5 Teams Compete In Marquee Doubleheader on ESPN

Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Tuesday night will feature one of the best regular season events in college basketball history, as No .1 Kentucky, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 4 Duke, and No. 5 Kansas take part in the Champions Classic, a doubleheader at Chicago’s United Center. The four programs participating in the doubleheader, which airs on ESPN, possess at least a dozen NBA prospects, and their four coaches have combined for 2,432 victories.

The evening will tip off with Kentucky vs. Michigan State, the earliest matchup ever between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the AP Top 25, at 7:30 p.m. ET. The matchup pits a young Wildcat squad that plays almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores against a veteran Spartan team.

“Just do well with what we have.,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari of his youthful bunch during Monday’s pre-game press conference. “There’s so many things we haven’t been able to go over and talk about. This is who we are, this is what we have…If [the freshmen and sophomores] feel good about it, then it’s fair. You can’t learn against Popcorn State. But you can learn when you’re playing really good teams.”

On Sunday, freshman point guard Andrew Harrison said, “”Coach doesn’t think we are ready, but we are just going to play hard and see who has it in them and who doesn’t.”

The Wildcats squeezed in two games during college basketball’s opening weekend, and they easily defeated UNC-Asheville and Northern Kentucky.

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Kentucky freshman Julius Randle has dominated in his first two games at the collegiate level. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

They received huge contributions from freshman forward and preseason All-American Julius Randle, who is averaging 22.5 points on 63.2% field-goal shooting and 14.5 rebounds per game.

But Tuesday will be a whole other type of test for Randle and Kentucky.

“Tuesday is going to be a war,” Randle said following the win against Northern Kentucky. “Michigan State is a physical team. The strength coaches have been preparing us for that.”

Randle will go up against Adreian Payne, Michigan State’s talented and experienced, senior forward. In the Spartans’ season opener against McNeese State, Payne posted a double-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds, and two assists in only 23 minutes. He is expected to be in the running for Big Ten Player of the Year following a series of high-quality performances late last season. One of the few knocks on Payne last year was that he played his best in marquee games but was often less of a factor when the spotlight was off—but that should not be a factor when facing the No. 1 team in the country on national television.

Along with Branden Dawson, Michigan State has one of the best front lines in the Big Ten this season.

“They’ve got big people. They’re front line is just as big as ours,” Calipari said of the Spartans’ frontcourt. “They’ll know how to take [Randle] away. They’ll double team him and be really physical. You’ve got Dakari (Johnson) you can throw it to in the post and even Willie (Cauley-Stein).”

The Wildcats will also be challenged my Michigan State’s terrific perimeter, led by sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris, another preseason All-American.

Harris battled injuries last season and during the offseason, but now he is healthy. Even so, he averaged 12.9 points and shot 41.1% on three-pointers as a freshman. Against McNeese State, he posted 20 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists while draining four three-pointers.

Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Gary Harris will compete for Big Ten Player of the Year this season. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Harris is joined by senior point guard Keith Appling, junior Travis Trice, and sophomore Denzel Valentine. All are capable of running the offense and also knocking down shots from the outside. Trice is coming off a noteworthy performance against McNeese State as well with 11 points, eight assists, and three treys.

Kentucky’s backcourt easily has just as much if not more raw talent, but freshman shooting guards Aaron Harrison and James Young have struggled offensively in the onset of their collegiate careers. Harrison scored 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting against UNC-Asheville, although he had a strong showing against Northern Kentucky with 16 points on 10 shots. Young, who received preseason hype as Kentucky’s best scorer, is averaging only eight points on 27.8% shooting. As a whole, Kentucky has struggled on the perimeter with 30.3% shooting from beyond the arc.

“We had our guards go 2-for-11 (on three-pointers) last game,” Calipari said. “That can’t happen. Not in this game.”

This game will be a huge test for Kentucky’s newcomers, as it is their first game truly playing in the national spotlight. But Kentucky players, especially under Calipari, are used to the hype from Big Blue Nation.

“Every game we play is hyped. This is a big deal, but it’s November: how big a deal is it?” Calipari said. “If you lose you move on. You learn from it. We’ve learned from every game we’ve played so far…It’s not football where you lose a couple early and you’re done.”

Duke vs. Kansas will follow in a matchup that has been advertised as Jabari Parker vs. Andrew Wiggins. Parker was the No. 1 recruit in the country until Wiggins reclassified to the Class of 2013 and took Parker’s spot. They are two of the most highly-touted freshmen and would likely be top-five picks if they declare for the 2014 NBA Draft as expected.

Parker had a dominant debut for the Blue Devils, torching the Davidson Wildcats for 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting to go along with six rebounds and two assists. He also showed his ability to stretch defenses with 3-of-3 shooting from beyond the arc.

He was already looking ahead to the matchup with Kansas following Friday’s win, and he fought against the notion that this game is about him and Wiggins. ““I know I’ve got individual goals, but I have to put that aside. What’s more important is the team,” he said. ” There are no individual matchups, [just] Duke versus Kansas.”

Wiggins’ debut statistics were not quite as impressive (16 points on 5-of-9 shooting), but he still was the Jayhawks’ leading scorer in their victory against Louisiana-Monroe.

Although Parker and Wiggins have garnered the most attention, both teams have other talented pieces worthy of praise.

Duke returns its backcourt starters from last year in junior Quinn Cook and sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon, and they added Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, who is considered to be a preseason All-American by some.

Cook is coming off a breakout season where he averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 39.3% from downtown. In the season opener, he posted 21 points and a team-high eight assists.

Sulaimon, an ACC All-Freshman Team member last season, also had a big opening night with 20 points and seven rebounds.

Hood lived up to the preseason hype on Friday with 22 points on 9-of-10 shooting, including 2-of-2 shooting on treys. He also contributed team-highs of nine rebounds and two blocks.

Meanwhile, Kansas returns junior point guard Naadir Tharpe and sophomore forward Perry Ellis, and it adds Wayne Selden Jr., Joel Embiid, Connor Frankamp, and Frank Mason to its heralded freshman class.

Tharpe did not play against Louisiana-Monroe due to a one-game suspension, so his appearance against Duke will mark his season debut.

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Naadir Tharpe takes on a starting role for Kansas this season after being the Jayhawks’ sixth man as a sophomore. (USA Today)

He did not start last season, but he did receive 19.4 minutes per game off the bench. He averaged 5.5 points and 3.1 dimes while making tremendous strides during the second half of the season. His experience will be invaluable, considering the one other upperclassman in head coach Bill Self’s rotation is actually a newcomer to the team.

That upperclassman is Tarik Black, a graduate student who transferred from Memphis. Black brings with him both experience and talent. In three years at Memphis, he started 60 games, and as a sophomore he averaged 10.7 points on 68.8% field-goal shooting.

Among Kansas’ freshmen, it appears all of them except Brannen Greene will have significant roles. Selden played 28 minutes against Louisiana-Monroe and recorded eight points and four assists; Embiid logged only 11 minutes but scored nine points and four rebounds; in 17 minutes, Frankamp had five points and three assists; and Mason led the Jayhawks with five assists.

However, Self has concerns about his team’s ability to keep up with Duke’s firepower following the season opener.

“They hung 111 (points) on a team tonight that we got beat by two years ago at the Sprint Center, Davidson,” Self said. “Our defense is just horrendous from what it needs to be so we’ll have to do some things differently. We’re going to have to handle the ball a lot better. It’s a work in progress.”

 

Predictions:

Michigan State 77, Kentucky 73

Duke 74, Kansas 69

 

Other notes on ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon:

If you’re going to watch any college basketball during the marathon, the Champions Classic should be at the top of your list. But if you’re a college basketball junkie who can handle a day packed with games, here are a few others to watch:

—Massachusetts will host LSU at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN2. The Minutemen are coming off a season-opening victory against Boston College and are looking to make another statement against the Tigers, who are also NCAA tournament hopefuls this season. Massachusetts point guard Chaz Williams, a 5’9″ point guard, is one of the most entertaining players in Division I.

—Virginia hosts VCU at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2, and this game will be great for commercial breaks during Kentucky vs. Michigan State. Both teams are ranked in the AP Top 25 and enter the game at 1-0, with Virginia disposing of James Madison and VCU blowing out Illinois State on Friday.

—And for commercials during Duke vs. Kansas, you’ll want to watch Florida vs. Wisconsin, which tips off at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Both are ranked in the top 20 and will compete for their respective league titles this winter.

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