GEORGIA DOME - ATLANTA, GA
NOVEMBER 13, 2012, 7:00 P.M.
The last time Michigan State and Kansas met, it was in a football stadium. The Spartans rallied to defeat the defending national champion Jayhawks at Lucas Oil Field to advance to the Elite Eight in 2009. That was the second time the teams met that season.
There is one player among these teams who was a part of those battles — Kansas senior guard Travis Releford. This year, the Spartans and Jayhawks will again meet in a football stadium, with KU being the defending national runner-up.
This is the second edition of the Champions Classic, a four-team event with MSU, KU, Duke and Kentucky. A year ago, the Spartans lost to Duke at Madison Square Garden. Next year, they'll play Kentucky at the United Center in Chicago. I really like the idea of this event, and it's a great feather for MSU to put in its cap. I am curious how many fans will show up, though I imagine most will be from the Big Blue Nation.
This year's Kansas team is quite different from a year ago. Gone are Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. It's considered by some to be a "rebuilding year" for the Jayhawks, but that still means being the Big 12 favorite and a top-10 ranking. Like MSU, Kansas is a young team looking to find some offense.
The Jayhawks beat Southeast Missouri State 74-55 in their opener, but didn't pull away until the second half. KU shot 38.7 percent from the floor, including 2-for-21 from three-point range. They did hold SE Missouri State to 29 percent shooting, and had a 49-37 edge on the glass.
MSU is coming off a frustrating, yet not surprising, loss to UConn in Germany, and have to quickly adjust back to Eastern Time. Will they finally get a big nonconference win? Let's take a detailed look at the Jayhawks.
Senior guards Elijah Johnson and Releford are both very good defenders and will pressure MSU's young backcourt. On the offensive side? The pair combined to score 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting in the opener, including 0-for-9 from three-point range.
Redshirt freshman guard Ben McLemore was a five-star recruit out of high school, but redshirted last year after an NCAA ruling (along with redshirt freshman power forward Jamari Taylor). At 6-foot-5, 195 pounds, NBA scouts are loving McLemore, who had nine points, 12 rebounds and five assists in his debut. Still, there are scoring questions with this backcourt, specifically with jump-shooting.
MSU's guards will have to be quick and prevent drives to the basket. On offense, Denzel Valentine will get more playing time with Travis Trice likely out due to concussion-like symptoms. Tom Izzo expressed caution that Valentine will be tested playing against guards as long as him for the first time.
Senior big man Jeff Withey seemed to take big step forward in the NCAA Tournament last year, and he is probably Kansas' best player. The seven-footer recorded 17 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in the opener. Look for him to swat a few more on Tuesday, as MSU had 10 shots blocked by the Huskies. The Spartans will have to finish strong if they want to get inside buckets — something that was missing from the opener.
Five-star freshman forward Perry Ellis recorded 15 points and eight rebounds in his debut. At 6-foot-8, he'll have a height advantage when Branden Dawson is on the floor. It will be interesting to see if MSU goes with the Adreian Payne/Derrick Nix lineup at all, given KU's athleticism and height inside.
How it'll go:
This has all the makings of an ugly, low-scoring affair. Both teams are still looking for ways to score, especially from their backcourts. I'm excited to see how Withey and Payne will match up. There will be a lot of available rebounds, and some elite rebounding players going after them. I think the length of Kansas will cause problems early, both inside and outside.
I do think the time change and travel from Germany will be a factor. This is a lot different from the three-hour change in San Diego last year. This is more comparable to the Maui Invitational, but you're usually not playing a top-10 team when you get back. It would be great to win one of these games, but in my Q&A with Rock Chalk Talk, I picked KU to win 65-60.