Throughout its seven-year existence, the Champions Classic has served as a tip-off for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball season. Featuring powerhouse programs Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas and Duke, this two-game event is one that is circled on many basketball fans’ calendars. This year, for the first time since 2013, all four teams have entered the Classic ranked within the top 10 of the Associated Press preseason poll.
For the fans, it’s a warm welcome back to the zest and flair of college basketball. For the teams, it’s a building block for the season, and an opportunity to throw the rankings out the window and play pure basketball, the way James Naismith would have wanted.
Although the four set teams in this tournament are nowhere near indicative of the teams that will be battling for a national title in San Antonio come April, this year’s games felt different. Each team returns a plethora of talent, along with a slew of five-star recruits. This made for two of the closer games in Champions Classic history.
Game 1: #1 Duke 88, #2 Michigan State 81:
This was the first, and perhaps most exciting, game of the night. The Spartans and Blue Devils have met 13 times prior to this one, with five of those being in the NCAA tournament.
As opposed to previous years, Duke is much younger and features star freshmen Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. The player that would shine brightest for the Devils, though, was veteran senior Grayson Allen. Coming off a junior season riddled with tripping incidents and tantrums, Allen silenced any doubt (but not the booing from the United Center) that his fundamental basketball skills were out of whack.
For the Spartans, this game followed a great deal of offseason momentum, mainly fueled by last year’s Big Ten Newcomer of the Year Miles Bridges deciding to stay at Michigan State instead of entering the NBA draft. One of the reasons Bridges decided to stay was because of the Spartans’ incoming freshman class, including McDonald’s All-American Jaren Jackson Jr. Bridges really wants to cut the net with his Spartan teammates before cutting ties with his college basketball career.
The Spartans’ overall performance in this game was a bit of a rollercoaster. From a fast start to losing a bit of control before halftime, it was evident how key of a component Bridges will be this season. His shooting lacked consistency, and he will have to step up big for the Spartans if they want to clinch a Big Ten title this year. For a program that is usually primed for March, they still have a bit of work to do, especially if they want to face the young Blue Devils again come tournament time.
Game 2: #4 Kansas 65, #7 Kentucky 61:
The second game of the night featured two of college basketball’s perennial blue bloods, the Kentucky Wildcats and Kansas Jayhawks
Wildcat fans may need to start realizing that John Calipari’s team (or as I like to refer to it, “a one-year NBA prospect camp”) could face a Final Four drought this season. Kentucky faces competition within the SEC, given the might of programs like Florida (#8) and Texas A&M (#25). Their conference tournament will certainly be one to watch in March.
Kansas is another story. When it comes to the conference level, the Jayhawks are the clear shoe-in for the Big 12 title. However, the real question lies in the ability to perform come tournament time. In Bill Self’s career as head coach, the team has only been able to win one national title (2008). Will this be the year that they add another?
The Jayhawks have potential, but a successful tournament run could only be made by a near flawless postseason from the Big 12 tournament to the NCAA tournament. This is where players like Sviatslav Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman will need to have big time performances.
Overall, this year’s Champions Classic lived up to expectation. All teams performed fairly close to their respective rankings, providing exciting basketball for those eager to get the season going. How will the rest of the season pan out for these teams? Only time will tell.
Photo by Andrew Wittland.