What We Learned From the Champions Classic

photo via Chicago Tribune

Last night had a lot of hype to it. It was the highest ranking for all four teams competing in the Champions Classic. All four teams were ranked in the top five in the preseason poll. While all four teams are far from mid-season form, it’s easy to see the potential they all have. Let’s take a look at one thing we learned from each team last night.

Grayson Allen is Duke’s Unquestioned Leader

Marvin Bagley received a lot of attention after Duke’s first two games. It was well warranted when you looked at the freshman’s numbers, but Tuesday night it was all Grayson Allen. Allen erupted for 37 points, shooting 7-11 from three point land. He is now 17-26 from three in the first three games of the year. Don’t expect Allen to shoot that well all season long, but do expect him to have maybe the best shooting numbers of his Duke career. The reason? Trevon Duval. Even Allen acknowledged after the game that many of his looks came off Duval’s creation. With a true point guard alongside him, Allen will get the clutch looks all year long

Depth Won’t Save Michigan State from Turnovers

Michigan State struggled last season to take care of the ball. Cassius Winston was just a green freshman and Tum Tum Nairn wasn’t good enough to keep his job over Winston. This year, Michigan State has a lot of things going in their favor, but the turnover battle can keep them from making a deep run in March. Winston did have 11 assists, but turned the ball over 5 times. Bridges had 5 turnovers as well, and freshman Jaren Jackson had 4. Compare that to Duke’s point guard, Trevon Duval, who only had 3 turnovers and 10 assists. Michigan State won’t cut down the nets if they turn the ball over 17 times a game.

Billy Preston Needs to Get On the Court

Kansas has a strong back court with Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and LeGerald Vick. Up front they are not so strong. To Bill Self’s credit he has adjusted to a four guard line up very well, but Kansas still needs some support down low. Udoka Azubuike looks to be the main man at center, but Mitch Lightfoot doesn’t look ready for major minutes. Freshman Billy Preston was expected to be in that front court rotation, but has missed the first two games for two separate incidents. That left Kansas with just seven scholarship players last night. Preston needs to figure out his off the court issues, because he team needs him on the court if they want to go deep into March.

Kevin Knox will be Kentucky’s Go To Guy

Kentucky has a very talented group of freshman, and I do think Hamidou Diallo will be a big contributor for the Wildcats this year. But I think Kevin Knox will emerge as the player John Calipari goes to when he needs a bucket. You saw it last night on various occasions, and you heard Dickie V scream “Give it to Knox!” numerous times. He was the only Kentucky player to hit a three, scored from all areas of the floor and had his name called late, though his floated rimmed out. Expect his number to be called more as the season progresses.

It’s very early in the season. All four coaches will tell you they have a lot to work on, and are far from a finished product. Then again, I think they would say that at anytime of the year. Regardless of the results, all fours teams showed why they were the favorites to win their respective conferences. Hang on, college basketball has just begun.

Potential Player Of The Year Candidates

College basketball is less than a month away. Excitement is beginning to grow as practice intensifies and opening season tip-off tournaments are on the horizon. With that, let’s look at five guys who could be talked about as National Player of the Year Candidates.

Miles Bridges – Michigan State

Bridges is considered the favorite by many to win NPOY after a somewhat surprising return for his sophomore season. Bridges put up a complete stat line last year for the Spartans. He averaged 16 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.5 blocks a game during his freshman campaign. That is crazy. With the arrival of Jaren Jackson, and a more experienced Michigan State team, Bridges might not have the same stat line this year, but he will undoubtedly be the straw that stirs the drink for Tom Izzo.

Jalen Brunson – Villanova

Brunson is my favorite to win National Player of the Year now that he is the focal point of Villanova’s offense. Brunson’s game expanded last year despite being overshadowed by Josh Hart. However, Brunson still led the team in scoring multiple times last season. He seemed to shine brightest against the top competition in the Big East, scoring 20+ points in games versus Butler (twice), Seton Hall and Creighton. Expect more scoring output from Brunson this season, and a better assist/turnover ratio in his junior year.

Michael Porter Jr – Missouri

Porter is an interesting candidate because he is sure to put up the numbers and is also an expected top two draft pick in next year’s draft. The question mark will be Missouri’s record. Players in years past like Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz did not receive as much attention due to their team’s performance. Missouri’s record will better indicate if Porter is closer to Anthony Davis/Kevin Durant or Simmons/Fultz.

Allonzo Trier – Arizona

Trier should be a NPOY candidate with a full junior season under his belt. He was limited to just 18 games due to a suspension in the beginning of the season. Trier showed his best self when Sean Miller inserted him back into the starting line up, averaging just shy of 19 points per game in Arizona’s last 10 regular season games. DeAndre Ayton will receive a lot of publicity as a future lottery pick, but expect Trier to be the centerpiece of the Wildcat’s success.

Devonte’ Graham – Kansas

Kansas has a history of seeing seniors take giant leaps in production. Perry Ellis did it, so did Frank Mason. Expect Devonte’ Graham to be the next in line. Graham averaged 13 points and 4 assists per game last season playing a “third wheel” to Mason and Josh Jackson. Though his percentage was down, Graham was good for over 2.5 three-pointers a contest last year for KU. With Mason and Jackson gone, I expect Graham’s numbers to blow up as the senior leader of Bill Self’s squad.

Honorable Mentions:

Marvin Bagley/Grayson Allen – Each player should have strong seasons for Duke, but they will both take production away from each other in terms of NPOY recognition

Joel Berry – A lot of pieces depart from UNC’s National Championship team. Berry is the key returner who will be enemy number one on every opposing team’s scouting report.

Angel Delgado – Delgado is good for a double-double every time he’s on the court. The Pirates should have a strong year thanks to a great senior nucleus, and Delgado should lead the country in double-doubles. 

Must Watch Games in the Big 12

The Big 12 Conference holds its hat on being able to crown “one true champion.” It’s the only conference that every team plays twice to truly see who is number one. Any college basketball fan knows that for the past 13 years, Kansas has been the said true champion in the Big 12, at least in the regular season. But it hasn’t always been predictable. Let’s look at five games that could impact the Big 12 championship.

Kansas at West Virginia – Monday, January 15th

Kansas and West Virginia have provided exciting contests since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12. West Virginia and their press is notorious for giving KU fits. Bob Huggins even gets a bonus every time he beats Kansas. Last year WVU won handily at home, and then lost a heart breaker in Lawrence. The Mountaineers blew a 14 point lead with 4 minutes to play, eventually falling to KU in overtime 84-80. It’s Jevon Carter vs. Devonte Graham. Bill Self vs. Bob Huggins. Kansas vs West Virgina. Will be a great one.

 

Oklahoma at TCU – Saturday December 30th

Welcome to the Big 12, Trae Young. This will be the first conference game for the likely one-and-done from Oklahoma. Young has the potential to put up scoring numbers similar to that of Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley in his one year in Norman. There’s no doubt OU will only go as far as Young takes them. For many talented freshman, it takes some time to adjust to the college game. It will be interesting to see how much Young has been able to adjust by the time conference play rolls around.

Texas at Baylor – Saturday, January 6th

This is a big game for Texas. For the past couple of season, Baylor has been the best team in the state of Texas. The Longhorns have a chance to change that and their first match-up with the Bears will go a long way to changing who runs the Lone Star state. Mo Bamba vs Jo Lual-Acuil (above) will be a highlighted match up in this one. Two of the best big men in the conference going to head-to-head; expect the paint to be well protected on both ends. Expectations are growing in Austin as Shaka Smart continues to rebuild the Longhorns. Bragging rights in the state is a big step in the right direction for a growing program.

Kansas at Texas – Friday December 29th

This is the earliest the Big 12 Conference begins play and it starts out with two of the conference’s premier teams. As mentioned above, Texas is looking to make a leap from last season. They return key pieces from last year’s team, while bringing in a five-star recruit and their point guard of the future. If Texas really is going to become a contender, they’re going to get a chance to prove themselves early against the conference favorite Kansas Jayhawks. What better way to declare yourselves back than to knock off the best?

TCU at Baylor – Tuesday January 2nd

Jamie Dixon might not admit to it, but this is a statement game for TCU as well. The Horned Frogs were one of college basketball’s most improved teams last season. They return a good nucleus of players from an NIT championship team and will look to take a step forward in the Big 12, while eyeing an NCAA Tournament bid. Similar to Texas, the next step is taking down the state’s most dominant team over the past few seasons. TCU lost both match ups to Baylor last season. If this season is going to be different, a win at Baylor will be a nice start.

For a full preview of the Big 12, click here.

Breaking Down the Big 12 Conference

For over a decade, the Big 12 conference has belonged to the Kansas Jayhawks. Teams have come and gone, but the one constant has been KU finishing atop the regular season standings. The feat is impressive when you consider the talent that circulates around the Big 12 Conference on a yearly basis. Unlike most conferences, the Big 12 hangs their hat as crowning “one true champion.” It’s the only conference that each team players each other twice. How will the Big 12 fair in the 2017-18 season? Will Kansas reign again? Will someone find a way to knock them off? Let’s preview the Big 12.

Kansas

Spoiler alert: Kansas will likely not be dethroned this season. The Big 12 has been, and will continue to be Kansas’ Conference. While the Jayhawks do not have the typical powerhouse recruiting class coming in, they do have a lot of experience returning to a team that made an Elite Eight appearance last season. The starting back court is solidified, and is the foundation of success for the Jayhawks. Devonte Graham returns to take on a bigger role than last year, Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick also return, and former McDonald’s All-American Malik Newman joins the rotation after sitting out a transfer year.

Up front will be more of a question mark. Bill Self landed Oak Hill’s Billy Preston, and the Jayhawks will have Udoka Azuibuke return after a season-ending hand injury. After that it’s thin for KU. Mitch Lightfoot will rotate in after seeing sporadic action in his freshman season. More likely than not though, you’ll see Self run out a four guard rotation to exploit mismatches and keep his bigs out of foul trouble. It might not be an exciting pick, but you can never bet against Kansas winning the Big 12.

West Virginia

The Mountaineers got a huge boost this off-season when Jevon Carter withdrew his name from the NBA Draft. The reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year will be the focal point of Bob Huggins’s chaotic defense, as well as the primary ball handler for WVU. Carter’s return, as well as West Virginia’s ability to give Kansas fits, gives them a chance to steal the conference.

The Mountaineers also return a slew of key contributors to last season’s team. Esa Ahmad, the team’s second leading scorer also returns, giving the offense a potent one-two punch. Daxter Miles Jr. will be relied upon heavily to raise his level of play as a senior this season. In typical Bob Huggins fashion, West Virginia doesn’t have any major recruiting prospects. Instead, they have a veteran team that will pester the heck out of teams for 40 minutes.

Texas

Texas had some growing pains last season under Shaka Smart. Slowly but surely, Smart is bringing in a team that will fit his system and as result, turn into success for the Longhorns. For starters, UT has a great freshman class. Mo Bamba (4), Matt Coleman (31), Jericho Sims (67) and Royce Hamm (82) are all Top 100 recruits according to ESPN. Bamba is a sure one-and-done and will have fans falling in love with him from day one. Coleman could be the best point guard Texas has seen since D.J. Augustin.

The Longhorns also got promising news when Andrew Jones chose to return to school instead of pursuing a professional career. The team’s third leading scorer from a year ago will give Smart a go to offensive player as his prizes freshman adjust to the college game. With other key contributors such as Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis returning, it could be a good season in Austin this year.

Baylor

Baylor was atop the Big 12 much of last season. Injuries and some misfortune led to a 20 point blowout loss in the Sweet 16. The Bears lost Jonathan Motley to the NBA. Al Freeman graduated and transferred to NC State. Senior leader Ishmail Wainright is also gone. Scott Drew will lean on returnees Manu Lecomte and Jo Lual-Acuil. Both players were key contributors to the Bears success last season, which did include wins over non-conference teams such as Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier.

Terry Matson, King McClure and Jake Lindsey all return as well this season, but a majority of the Bears’ success this year will fall on the shoulders of Lecomte and Lual-Acuil.

TCU

TCU was by far the most improved team in the conference last season. Jamie Dixon has the Horned Frogs trending in the right direction, and for the first time in a long time, TCU is relevant in college basketball. The Horned Frogs finished seventh in the conference last season, but ended the 16-17 campaign on an extremely high note. They knocked off the top seeded Jayhawks in the Big 12 Tournament, and then marched their way to an NIT Championship.

Jamie Dixon will return his top six scorers from last season, including leading scorer Vladimir Brodziansky, who averaged 14 points a game last season, including a season-high 28 against Kansas at Phogg Allen. Also joining the mix are two strong freshman recruits. Kevin Samuel (6’10, St. Thomas Episcopal) and R.J. Bemhard (6’4 Keller) will provide great depth to a seasoned team that is riding a lot of momentum from last year.

 

Oklahoma

It was a down year last season for a young Oklahoma team. The Sooners only had two upperclassmen average 20 minutes or more per game last season (Jordan Woodard & Khadeem Lattin). Woodard is gone, but the Sooners spent much of last season without him anyway due to injury. Lattin will return and is far and away the most experienced player for Lon Kruger.

While OU faithful need to believe that this group will learn from its growing pains last season, they can also get excited about the arrival of Trae Young. Young, the five-star recruit ranked #23 overall on ESPN, chose to stay home in Oklahoma over the likes of Kansas and Kentucky. A prolific scorer in high school, Young will be a huge addition to a team looking to take a major step forward from last season.

Texas Tech

For the past two seasons, location has been key to Texas Tech’s outcome. In two years, they are 30-6 in the comfort of their own gym. Away from home however, they are 4-16. While some of those wins are against low-major schools, they did enjoy wins over West Virginia and Baylor at home last season, and took Kansas to the final seconds.

If Chris Beard’s team wants to take a step forward, they will need to find a way to win on the road. If a team is going to do that, it’s this Tech team. TTU’s top two leading scorers return in Keenan Evans and Zach Smith. The duo combined to average 27 points per game last year. Justin Gray and Niem Stevenson also return, giving Texas Tech a solid core of returning contributors. If Texas Tech can learn how to win on the road, I probably like them to finish higher than seventh. Until that is proven though, they stay here.

Iowa State

Iowa State lost a decorated senior class after last season. Monte Morris, Naz Long, Deondre Burton & Matt Thomas were major pieces to the Cyclone’s Big 12 Championship run last year. With so much production gone, it will take multiple players to step up for Steve Prohm next season. Donovan Jackson will move from role player to centerpiece, and will likely take over as floor general. Solomon Young saw an increase in minutes midway through the year last season; he will now have a huge role in protecting the paint and owning the glass.

Lindell Wigginton is the Cyclone’s prize recruit who will be able to contribute from the start next season. Coming from prestige powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, Wigginton is a great slasher and can penetrate the defense so himself or others. Pieces are there, but it would take some Hilton Magic for Iowa State to find themselves in another Big 12 Championship.

Kansas State

It was a middle of the road finish last season for Bruce Weber and Kansas State. Good news is that they only lose two players from last year’s team. Bad news is they are their two most important players, Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson. Iwundu did it all for K-State, including leading them in points and rebounds per contest. Johnson was KSU’s most important player. Games often changed for the worse when he came off the floor. Their absence will be felt this season.

That said, the Wildcats return a good chunk of production in Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade. All three were starters and played in every contest for Kansas State last season. Adding Xavier Sneed into the starting lineup will give Weber four experienced starters, but the depth is shallow after that. Could hurt K-State in the long grind that is the Big 12 regular season.

Oklahoma State

The Cowboys backcourt is wide open with the departure of Juwan Evans and Phil Forte. Evans led the team in points and assists and Forte has been a staple in the Cowboy lineup for what feels like 10 years now. Replacing those two will not be easy. Jeffrey Carroll returns as the focal point of the offense, but they will not have any one player who can replace what Evans and Forte brought to the team.