Champions Classic Preview: Here’s What We’ll Watch for in Kansas-Michigan State, Kentucky-Duke

    The first college basketball games of the 2018-19 season tip off Tuesday, headlined by the Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

    November 4, 2018

    The first college basketball games of the 2018-19 season tip off Tuesday, headlined by the Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. One of the best non-conference events in the sport pits four of the best programs in the country against each other on a neutral court on an annual basis.

    No. 1 Kansas and No. 10 Michigan State square off at 7 p.m. ET, followed by No. 2 Kentucky versus No. 4 Duke at 9:30 p.m. Both games will be on ESPN.

    Here’s what we’ll be watching for in each game.

    Kansas vs. Michigan State

    Will Kansas forward Dedric Lawson play like a national player of the year contender?

    Dedric Lawson and his younger brother K.J. haven’t played in a college basketball game in more than a year in a half — since March 10, 2017, to be exact — but the former is one of the most proven, productive players in the entire sport. Both players transferred from Memphis to Kansas after the 2017 season, then redshirted last year, setting up the Jayhawks to earn the No. 1 ranking in the preseason AP Top 25 poll once they both became eligible in 2018.

    Dedric Lawson had 31 points on 11-of-16 shooting and 15 rebounds in Kansas’ exhibition victory over Emporia State, then “only” 18 and six in another exhibition win over Washburn.

    The 6-9, 235-pound forward was 6-of-8 from 3-point range in the two games after shooting just 27 percent from behind the arc as a sophomore. If Lawson can shoot better than 35 percent from 3-point range — his freshman year 3-point percentage — then good luck trying to guard him this season.

    How does Cassius Winston handle life without Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson?

    Michigan State had two lottery picks on its roster last season and point guard Cassius Winston reaped the benefits, posting elite efficiency numbers. As a sophomore, he had a 129.2 offensive rating (15th nationally), 68 percent true shooting percent (9th) and 43.7 percent assist rate (2nd), while averaging 12.6 points, 6.9 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game.

    Winston was named to the All-Big Ten Third Team by the conference’s coaches, along with Jackson, while Bridges earned First Team honors. The junior point guard is arguably the best returning player for Michigan State, which begs the question: How much can Winston’s per-game stats improve and at what cost to his efficiency?

    The Spartans were picked to win the Big Ten in an unofficial media poll and their returning core of Winston, forward Nick Ward, and guard Joshua Langford make them one of the top teams in the conference. Their ceiling could hinge on how well Winston balances scoring and creating for others.

    Kansas returns to a two-big starting lineup

    Kansas Head Coach Bill Self has tended to utilize starting lineups with two true big men, but the Jayhawks have gotten away from it in part due to roster constraints. In the last two years, the Jayhawks have primarily operated with four guards/wings playing around a center.

    This season, Kansas will return to its typical lineup composition even as sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa sits out while the university evaluates his situation. De Sousa was mentioned in federal court during the trial of an Adidas executive and Kansas will want to ensure he’s completely cleared before bringing him back on the court.

    With Dedric Lawson, junior center Udoka Azubuike, freshman forward David McCormack and junior forward Mitch Lightfoot, Kansas has a four-man frontcourt rotation that could grow if De Sousa returns.

    In both of its exhibition games, Lawson has started at the “four” with Azubuike at center. McCormack and Lighfoot each played between 12 and 14 minutes in both games.

    Kansas has seven guards who should warrant a spot in the rotation, so while the Jayhawks won’t have two five-man platoons a la Kentucky in the 2014-15 season, they could be as deep and versatile as any team in the country.

    Kentucky vs. Duke

    How will Duke use its three-headed freshman monster?

    Duke’s 2018 recruiting class might be unmatched in terms of star power. The Blue Devils landed the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 5 players in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. The latter of those three, Zion Williamson, is probably a bigger name than the former two, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, based on his highlight-reel dunks and mixtapes alone.

    It’ll be fascinating to watch how Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski uses the three forwards, who are all 6-7 or 6-8, and how many minutes they’re on the floor together. Even if you’re an advocate of putting the best talent on the court and trusting it to work it out, playing all three together requires one to play center or shooting guard — at least defensively — and that may have its limitations.

    Where will Kentucky’s 3-point shooting come from this season?

    The Wildcats shot 35.7 percent from behind the arc and only 20.6 percent of its points came from 3-pointers last season, which ranked 344th in the country. It wasn’t Kentucky’s 3-point accuracy that was as much of a concern as its frequency of attempts. The ‘Cats averaged just 5.2 made 3-pointers on fewer than 15 attempts per game.

    Outside of Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari’s 2011 and — to a lesser extent — 2012 teams, the Wildcats haven’t been a particularly prolific 3-point shooting program this decade. However, last year’s team attempted fewer threes relative to its total field goal attempts than any of its predecessors.

    Sophomore guard Quade Green (37.6 percent on 3.2 attempts/game) is Kentucky’s only returning 3-point threat but keep an eye on freshman guard Tyler Herro. In Kentucky’s four games in the Bahamas over the summer, the team’s Blue-White Game and its exhibition against Transylvania, Herro was 12-for-28 (42.8%) from 3-point range.

    The Wildcats’ exhibition games showed they could be susceptible to some incredibly cold shooting night from outside with a 2-for-20 performance in their first game in the Bahamas and a 1-for-13 mark against Transylvania.

    Will Kentucky’s mix of highly ranked recruits and returning players look from Day 1?

    John Calipari’s best teams at Kentucky have had a combination of highly regarded, immediate-impact freshmen plus key returning players and that’s the kind of roster composition the Wildcats have this season.

    Three of Kentucky’s top six scorers on its national title-winning team in 2012 weren’t freshmen. Eight of the top 12 players on the Wildcats team that went 38-1 in 2015 were sophomores or older.

    This season, Kentucky combines the No. 2 recruiting class in the country according to 247Sports’ Composite rankings with sophomores PJ Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards. The Wildcats will also welcome grad transfer Reid Travis.

    Washington and Green averaged 10.0 and 9.0 points, respectively, last season, while Travis averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds in an All-Pac-12 campaign at Stanford. Freshmen EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickley and Tyler Herro are all top-40 recruits who warrant significant minutes in Kentucky’s rotation.

    With talented freshmen and experienced college players in its backcourt and frontcourt, Kentucky could have the roster balance and composition to contend for another national title. We’ll be interested in how quickly this group gels and performs against a fellow top-five team in Duke.

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