Tuesday’s Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis will feature two marquee matchups to open up the 2018-2019 college basketball season. The event is a week earlier than last year, but considering the buzz surrounding the four teams, fans should be in for a great night of hoops.
After a Final Four trip last year, Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks enter the season ranked No. 1 with a loaded roster set for another deep March run. He will, however, have to find a way to do so without three of his most coveted Jayhawks in recent memory. Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk all moved on to the next level after having large and lasting impacts on the program.
All three of those guys were 14-or-more point scorers last season and provided accountability, shooting and toughness. The good news for Self, however, is that he’s never had an issue re-tooling his roster year after year, and this year’s team seems to be no different.
With Graham gone, in comes true freshman and projected 2019 top-10 pick Quentin Grimes, who looks more than ready to be the next great Jayhawk floor general. The 6-foot-5 guard and former Texas Gatorade Player of the Year stepped foot on campus with huge expectations already draped over his young shoulders.
This might be one of the better backcourts that Self has had during his time in Lawrence. Grimes will be flanked by veteran sharpshooter Lagerald Vick, a slippery Cal transfer guard Charlie Moore and bluechip freshman Devon Dotson.
Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson sat out all of last season, but has the green light this year with the potential to be National Player of the Year good. He quietly stuffed the stat sheet in the American conference, averaging nearly 20 and 10 in his sophomore year with the Tigers, and will be the No. 1 scoring option for the Jayhawks this season.
Kansas’ front court could be as good as anyone’s with Lawson playing alongside All-Big 12 Third Team junior Udoka Azubuike. The monstrous big man led the country in field goal percentage as a sophomore last year (77 percent), but struggled mightily from the charity stripe (41 percent). Azubuike is still expanding his offensive arsenal, and if he can add a serviceable mid-range jumper, like many people around the team are saying he has, good luck defending this load of a human down low.
Silvio De Sousa is being held out for an indefinite amount of time while Kansas reviews the talented forward’s eligibility, but true freshman David McCormack will provide solid depth up front. McCormack, like his fellow freshmen Grimes and Dotson, all played on the McDonald’s All-American team.
Looking at Michigan State, which starts the year ranked No. 10, it’s a team coming off of a disappointing second round upset to Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans lost two first round NBA Draft picks in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges, but Tom Izzo still has a handful of talent returning, including his All-Big Ten Third Team guard Cassius Winston.
Winston had an exceptional sophomore campaign, dishing out seven assists per game and shooting 50 percent from deep, including an impressive 90 percent clip from the free throw line. Winston was one of 20 candidates named to the Bob Cousy Award Preseason Watch List.
Averaging 12 points per game in an inconsistent season last year, junior Josh Langford returns for a season in which many view him as the X factor for how far this Spartan team can go. Expect the productivity for Langford to increase significantly this year, and because of his solid 3-point shooting (40 percent) and improved ability to get to the basket, Langford is a guy who should be able to give his team 18-20 points a night.
Nick Ward is coming off a solid sophomore year in which he averaged 13 points and seven boards, all in just 19 minutes of work per game. Almost an automatic source of offense down low last year, Ward should see a big spike in his production this year, if he can stay out of foul trouble. Ward looks significantly slimmed down and seems poised for a big junior season.
The Spartans’ freshman don’t quite match those of Kansas’, but Aaron Henry is one who could be as good as any on the court Tuesday. He seems to be most game-ready freshman on the team, and that’s clear when you see how physically ready Henry looks just as a 19-year-old. At 6-foot-6, he’s a load of a guard, can defend multiple positions and is an active defender, qualities that should find him immediate playing time for Izzo.
The matchup to watch has to be Azubuike and Ward. Azubuike is a total force to deal with underneath, so even Xavier Tillman, who’s bulked up quite a bit in the offseason, will have a tough time keeping the 7-footer away from the basket if Ward gets into early foul trouble.
Izzo always challenges his teams early in the year with stiff competition. His team went blow-for-blow against a really solid Duke squad last year, until Grayson Allen’s 23 second half points helped the Blue Devils pull away. Both teams need to replace a bulk of their scoring from last year, so don’t expect an offensive clinic, but considering what both team’s return, you can bet there’ll be a whole lot of fireworks.
Kansas’ roster depth, one-and-done ability, guard play, size and coaching make this team a complete one this year. It’ll have a real stingy defense and a dynamic and versatile offense that will translate to a whole lot of wins. The Jayhawks could take an unusual route of riding a couple of big man, but this group has all the makings of another Final Four team.
Michigan State feels like a more classic Izzo-led team this year. It’s a veteran group with no definite draft picks, but still has lots of talent that can carry them a long way. Compared to last season, there’s nowhere near the amount of pressure and hype, but that’s usually when Izzo and co. seem to be at their best.
Kansas and Michigan State will tip things off at 7 p.m. on Nov. 6. Duke and Kentucky will follow that game, with tipoff set for 9:30 p.m. Both games will be televised on ESPN.