The 2019 college basketball season is finally here and ready to get off to an exciting start on the opening night. Assured to be the two most important games of the evening, the Champion’s Classic has provided (very) early looks into the potential of blue blood teams to reach the national title game and measure the strength of several others all in one place. Historic Rivalries. Top Talent. Iconic Coaches.
#3 Kansas @ #4 Duke -2.5 (neutral floor)
Finishing with an Elite 8 appearance and a 32-6 record, the Duke Blue Devils were one of the most exciting teams to watch nationally last season. The presence of Zion Williamson’s dunks high above the rim, stellar shooting from RJ Barrett and dramatic victories provided by Cam Reddish left a little something for every fan. However this season they’re all gone and will not be providing excitement for Duke, but instead for their NBA teams. Each was taken in the top 10 of this Summer’s draft and leaves a large void for Coach K to fill heading into this season.
Enter the #3 national recruiting class, led by 5-stars Vernon Carey Jr. and Matthew Hurt. This group will assuredly not garner as much attention across the country as last year’s team, but is nonetheless just as athletic and deadly as 2018’s group. Carey, as a Center, is much more athletic than a lot of people give him credit for and can stretch the floor occasionally with his shooting. Hurt on the other hand is a creative and smart player with a killer shooting stroke from anywhere on the floor. Most impressive was his court awareness during the McDonald’s All-American Game, scoring off of backdoor cuts along the baseline or cutting through the interior of the defense to score easy layups.
Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley, both 4-star recruits, complete the rest of Duke’s recruiting class this offseason. An incredibly athletic pairing, shooting is not going to be their strong suit, but they will certainly rival the acrobatic and powerful plays of Zion Williamson from last year. In fact shooting won’t be anybody’s strong suit on this team, at least from the 3-point line.
The Blue Devils roster has not significantly changed to overcome last year’s dismal efforts from the 3-pt line. Ranked as the 4th-worst perimeter shooting team amongst the Power 5/Big East/American conferences in 2018, Duke could only manage 30.8% and was 0.1% away from being the worst team in that group. Improving upon that number in 2019 will fall square on the shoulders of reserve guard Alex McConnell and starter Matthew Hurt. Duke will need consistent production in this area to keep defenses honest this season.
On the flip side of the court, the Kansas Jayhawks finished their 2018-19 campaign with a 26-10 record. It was the first time in 15 years that the program had not won or shared the regular-season Big-12 conference title. However, it wasn’t all that bad considering starting Center Udoka Azubuike was lost for almost the entire season. Additionally, Silvio de Sousa was ruled ineligible by the NCAA further eliminating any frontcourt depth the team had going into the season. Furthermore, the program suffered several casualties via the transfer portal: Quentin Grimes (Houston), KJ Lawson (Tulane) and Charlie Moore (DePaul).
Despite the losses, Self’s team is in a great spot to challenge for a national title. Devon Dotson pulled his name from NBA Draft consideration and returns to lead the Jayhawks as a more polished and lethal player. Wings Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett round out a well-meshed backcourt capable of creating havoc throughout the year. Former Michigan commit Jalen Wilson and Tristan Enaruna enter the fold as well as talented shooters and shot creators on the wings to further increase the depth on the perimeter.
While the Jayhawks lost primary frontcourt option and leading scorer Dedric Lawson, they do return Azubuike on the interior to anchor the team on both ends of the floor. Furthermore, the NCAA has finally cleared de Sousa to play this season restoring some of the rebounding prowess prototypical Kansas teams. This year’s squad is ready to fully stretch their legs and stake their claim in a wide-open national title race.
Keys for the Blue Devils and Jayhawks:
Duke is a highly athletic team, but cannot shoot the ball well from the perimeter. It would be most beneficial for the Blue Devils to focus their efforts on crashing the glass, attacking the rim and living at the free throw line for an easier night. However, following a plan is easier said than done. Vernon Carey has some growing to do and could stand to utilize post opportunities more frequently than he is likely to do in games this season. Looking to run more towards the 3-point line than the rim, Carey could make things harder for Duke if he relies too heavily on an outside shot and against a less mobile big in Azubuike.
Kansas has a lot of general depth on this team, but they are thin at two positions on the floor: point guard and center. Devon Dotson is the only primary ball handling option for Bill Self on this year’s roster, as well as only 3 true post players in Azubuike, de Sousa and David McCormack. It’s not a secret formula, but the Jayhawks can’t afford to rack up fouls in these areas. Additionally, Kansas has a lot of capable options on the perimeter. Making the extra pass and getting the best look will get all parties involved and keep the defense guessing.
Prediction: Kansas +2.5
#1 Michigan State -2 @ #2 Kentucky (neutral floor)
The Spartans upset national title favorites Duke to reach the Final Four last season. It was a surprising feat given the team’s early loss of shooting guard Joshua Langford to injury and the disappearance of Nick Ward down the stretch. The result of that game was undoubtedly instilled in the offseason by Tom Izzo’s intense defensive and physical preparation to wear teams down. Michigan State rallied around their floor general Cassius Winston and overcame the odds to overachieve in the NCAA tournament.
Spurning the NBA Draft, Winston is back at the helm for Izzo in 2019 and a national player of the year candidate. He is headlining the preseason #1 team and a consensus title favorite with one of the most experienced and talented teams in the country. The offense will undoubtedly run through the crafty point guard again, who excels in keeping defenders off balance in pick-and-roll situations. His court vision out of these types of plays allow for high distribution and sharing of the Spartans offensive load.
Kentucky, on the other hand, will not have to completely reload as Coach Calipari has become accustomed to. Guards Immanuel Quickly and Ashton Hagans, as well as Centers EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards returned to the program this offseason to give the Wildcats a solid base to build from. However, ‘Big Blue Nation’ still received an exceptionally talented class of recruits to lift the overall talent level of this year’s team.
Led by electric and speedy guard Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky signed a little bit of everything this offseason. Khalil Whitney and Keion Brooks bring size, physicality and playmaking on both ends of the floor on the wings, while Johnny Juzang and Dontaie Allen can score the 3-ball with ease. Collectively they are a hungry group eager to prove themselves, not only amongst their teammates but on the national stage this season.
Keys for the Spartans and Wildcats:
Michigan State is hands down the more experienced and battle-tested team in this matchup. Tom Izzo will have his team ready to play physical basketball and that starts in the rebounding department. As the top defensive rebounding team in the nation last season, the Spartans will look to jump out front in this area early in the game and limit second-chance opportunities to a talented but inexperienced Kentucky team. The Wildcats will want to run as often as possible, and controlling the glass will reduce the likelihood Maxey or Hagans can run freely in the open court.
Kentucky also needs to control the glass in this matchup to get comfortable offensively and take advantage of second-chance opportunities. However, it’s also imperative that this team plays calm and collected. Another year in the one-and-done era and a large majority of the Wildcats projected stars have not seen a minute of college action yet. Controlling the pace to their liking and making smart decisions with the ball is the key to not shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers against an experienced and physical team.
Prediction: Michigan State -2