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.

Best Match Ups During Opening Week of College Basketball


College Basketball begins tonight, but the first week can often be over-hyped, as it consists of many lopsided affairs. A lot of fans look forward to seeing new talent beat up on lesser opponents, but outside that the excitement begins with the championship games of the more prominent preseason tournaments. Don’t sleep on the first week this year however. There are a lot of good games between teams who should be playing come March. Here are eleven games to check out during week one.

Texas A&M vs West Virginia – Friday, November 10th

The season starts off with a Top 25 match up between the SEC and Big 12. Neither team will be at full strength due to suspensions. A&M will be missing future pro Robert Williams and JJ Caldwell and the Mountaineers will be without Esa Ahmad. West Virginia does have Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jevon Carter and Bob Huggins’s defense is always fun to watch. For A&M, you will see a lot of Admon Gilder, DJ Hogg and Paul Davis – their top three scorers from last year. Williams and Ahmad will be huge pieces for their teams this season, but there is plenty of talent without them.

Georgia Tech vs UCLA – Friday, November 10th

This game gained a little traction with the news of three UCLA players caught shoplifting while in China. This game would be great if Josh Okogie wasn’t suspended for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets still have All-ACC second team Ben Lammers, who should have another strong year. For UCLA, you will get your first look at new freshman Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes. Both players are replacing pretty highly touted freshman in their own right. This is a chance for Georgia Tech to get a resume boosting win on day one.

Yale vs Wisconsin – Sunday, November 12th

Yes, I’m including Yale in a best match up blog. Yale will be talented this year. The Bulldogs were a tournament team just two years ago, and could have been one last year if Makai Mason had not injured his foot early in the year. Yale now returns Mason, and three of their top four scorers from last year. Wisconsin will struggle some, but they still have All-American Ethan Happ. Expect this to be close and don’t be surprised if Yale wins.

Minnesota vs Providence – Monday, November 13th

Two of the most under-appreciated coaches in the country. Ed Cooley and Richard Pitino have built two strong teams. Minnesota, ranked 15th in the country, broke onto the scene last season, and return their two best players, Nate Mason and Amir Coffey. The addition of good recruiting class has the Gopher’s sights set on another NCAA tournament bid. The same can be said for Providence. The Friars return All-Big East player Rodney Bullock and are a seasoned club. Just like Minnesota, they have a very talented freshman to add to a deep team in Makai Ashton-Langford. Expect both these teams to be playing in March.

Butler vs Maryland – Tuesday, November 14th

This is another match up between two teams who will compete in the top half of their respective conferences. Butler returns their best player in Kelan Martin, and will have Kamar Baldwin back as well as supporting cast. The Bulldogs have a nice freshman guard in Aaron Thompson who will get his first real taste of college action against a tough Maryland team. For Maryland, they will experience life without Melo Trimble. Get to know their sophomore trio of Justin Jackson, Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan. These three will make this team go this year.

Indiana vs Seton Hall – Tuesday, November 14th

The Archie Miller era begins in Indiana this year. It will be a tough first year, as IU loses a lot from last year’s team. Look for Josh Newkirk and Juwan Morgan to become the go to guys this season. I also think Curtis Jones will give the Hoosiers so balance at the point guard position. For Seton Hall, this is a big year. The once heralded recruiting class of Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Kadeen Carrington have not reached senior year. Delgado is one of the best bigs in the country. He’s a double-double machine, plain and simple. The Pirates also have sharpshooter Myles Powell and a nice group of freshman to add to their veteran group. Expectations are high in Jersey.

Xavier vs Wisconsin – Wednesday, November 15th

We talked about Wisconsin earlier. If Yale isn’t a test for them, Xavier definitely will be. The Muskateers have one of the best guards in the country in Trevon Bluiett, and J.P. Macura is back for his senior season. The Big East has been Villanova’s conference to lose, but Xavier will look to have a say about that. New faces like Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall will only add more weapons to a dangerous Big East team.

Virginia Tech vs St. Louis – Thursday, November 16th

This match up would be awesome next year; That’s not taking away from the one we have this year. Both teams have a lot of young talent and will use this year to gain some much needed experience in their conferences. Saint Louis has senior Davell Roby to lead their group of sophomore and freshman. Billiken fans will enjoy watching Jermaine Bishop for an entire season after medically redshirting, and will be introduced to freshman Jordan Goodwin. For Virginia Tech, they welcome freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Wabissa Bede. The two will join returning players such as Chris Clarke and Ahmed Hill, who both averaged 11 points a game last year.

Virginia vs VCU – Friday, November 17th

Tipping at 4P EST on Friday, this is the last game before first rounds of many opening tournaments start. Virginia got hit by the transfer bug, while VCU will have some nice transfer pieces eligible this year. You can always count on Tony Bennett’s team to be stout defensively, and a back court of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome will be fun to watch for the Cavaliers. VCU loses a lot of scoring, but Justin Tillman and Jonathan Williams are reliable scorers. Transfers Kris Lane and Isaac  Vann both transferred from smaller programs, but will be contributors for VCU as well this season.

Champions Classic – Tuesday, November 14th

This needs it’s own section. It’s one of, if not the biggest non-conference event of the year. Four of college basketball’s blue bloods and four of the top five teams in the country this year. The 2017 Champions Classic has a little bit of everything.

Duke vs Michigan State – 7PM

Bagley vs Bridges. Krzyzewksi vs Izzo. Duke vs Michigan State. This match up features a deep and primed Spartan team versus a NBA bound Duke club. The Blue Devils are led by highly touted freshman Marvin Bagley, Trevon Duval and Wendell Carter. Oh, and who could forget Grayson Allen. Duke doesn’t have the deepest of teams, but their starting five is as good as it gets. Michigan State is the opposite. The Spartans have depth upon depth. They return a team that went through growing pains and injuries last season. They have future lottery pick Miles Bridges, they have great depth in the post and the have Tom Izzo. These are two teams expected to play deep into March.

Kentucky vs Kansas – 10:30 PM

Game two features Big Blue Nation and Rock Chalk. New year, same script for Kentucky, as they will lean on numerous McDonald All-American freshman to lead them through SEC play and into the NCAA Tournament. Different than most UK teams, John Calipari really doesn’t have an upperclassmen to lead his young team. As a result, don’t be surprised if it takes a little for Kentucky to click. Once they do though, players like Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo will be household names, if they somehow aren’t already. Kansas, like last year, will again rely on their guard play in 17-18. A small ball line up of Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, Svi Mykhailiuk and LeGerald Vick will be utilized a lot. They have question marks upfront, but KU appears to be the favorite once again in the Big 12.

So there it is, a schedule to get you through week one of the college season. After these games, preseason tournaments will begin and there will be some great championship battles to look forward to. Just don’t look ahead too soon, or you may miss a couple of great games.

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.

Best Thing All CBB Season: Champions Classic

Marvin Bagley shook up the college basketball world Monday night when he announced his commitment to Duke and reclassification to the Class of 2017. Many put Bagley at the top of the Class now as the most prized recruit, over Michael Porter Jr. The move also gave Duke, who is welcoming in three McDonald’s All-Americans, an absolutely loaded ’17 recruiting class. After the Bagley news settled in, my mind jumped right to the Champions Classic; this year is going to be absolutely loaded with college talent.

While an event that features college basketball blue bloods, and four Hall of Fame coaches is sure to always draw attention, this year is different. Let’s take a look at each team as they head into the 2017-18 season.

Kansas

Kansas may have the least hype heading into the season of this quartet, but don’t be fooled, Bill Self’s team is still the favorite to win the Big 12. Self will return a good core from last year’s Elite Eight team. Yes, Frank Mason and Josh Jackson are gone. A returning cast of DeVonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and LeGerald Vick is a solid group to contend. The Jayhawks will also get back Udoka Azubuike, who missed most of last season with a wrist injury.

New to the Jayhawks will be freshman Billy Preston, a 6-10 forward from Oak Hill University, as well as Malik Newman. Newman was a former five-star recruit who will suit up for his first game action at Kansas after transferring from Mississippi State. If KU can pull a rabbit out of a hat and land five-star recruit Mitchell Robinson-and get him eligible- they will join the conversation as National Championship contender. For now, front court depth will remain a question mark for Rock Chalk.

Kentucky

Spoiler alert: John Calipari has another great recruiting class coming into Kentucky. The Wildcats lose a lot of pieces from last year’s team, but bring in a strong class, featuring 5 five-star recruits. Kentucky’s strengths will be at the wing and in the back court, not to say they are weak in the front court by any means. With Kevin Knox and PJ Washington, Kentucky has two elite wings who can get out on the break and finish everything around the rim. With a back court duo of Hamidou Diallo- who practiced with the team during the second half of last season- and Quade Green, Calipari has a team that will love to get up and down in transition and make highlight reel plays above the rim.

Add Nick Richards, Jarred Vanderbilt and a returning Wenyen Gabriel, and Kentucky has a group of bigs that will mainly be asked to protect that paint and own the glass, things each of them have proven capable of doing. Kentucky may have lost a lot, but in typical John Calipari fashion, he brought in a new wave of future Pros to Lexington. SEC favorites once again.

Michigan State

Similar to Kansas, Tom Izzo does not have a recruiting class coming in that compare to Kentucky and Duke’s. Also like Kansas, he has a very talented group returning with a year of experience under their belt, and a hunger for improvement. The Spartans saw a lot of ups and downs last season, with four freshman playing crucial roles. All four return for their sophomore campaigns including Miles Bridges, who was a lock to be a lottery, and likely even a top 10 pick in last Spring’s NBA draft. Also returning are Cassius Winston and Tum Tum Nairn. These two guards will be crucial for any success next season, as they will be leaned on to control the offense.

Despite the tremendous nucleus returning, Izzo still managed to bring in Jaren Jackson, ESPN’s #8 recruit in the Class of 2017. As a 6’11 stretch forward, Jackson brings versatility to a team that is already versatile. He and Bridges, two assumed lottery picks should they declare for the 2018 Draft, can play multiple spots on the floor. Giving a coach like Tom Izzo so many combinations to run is a dangerous thing come March.

Duke

Last but not least, Duke. As mentioned earlier, the Blue Devils changed the game when they landed Marvin Bagley. Coach K had already inked three of ESPN’s top seven recruits. With Bagley, they now have four of the top eight. Bagley, paired with Wendell Carter, gives Duke two Top 10 recruits joining Marques Bolden in the front court in Cameron. While depth is always a concern, all eyes will be on Bagley to carry the load and solidify their preseason #1 ranking.

The Blue Devils also landed the best possible freshman to replace Frank Jackson and Luke Kennard. Coming to Durham this season is top point guard Trevon Duval and top shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. Duval is an explosive point guard; think Dennis Smith-esque. Trent is one of the best scorers in the class. As ESPN called it, he’s a “bucket getter,” and loves the ball in his hands when his team needs to score. With him and Bagley on the floor, Duke should not have any problem finding ways to score the basketball.

This is a brief overview of four of the top teams in college basketball next season. An in-depth look could go on for pages. The Champions Classic is always stacked with NBA lottery pick talent among four high profile college basketball programs. This year however is a bit different; no team is going to be “down” from last year. When it’s all said and done, this year’s Champions Classic could produce the #1 Overall Draft pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, as well as at least 10 first round picks, most of which will be lottery picks. Get excited, college basketball is almost here.