At the beginning of every season, four top-25 men’s basketball teams square off in one of the biggest regular-season traditions in college basketball: the Champions Classic. Established in 2011, the annual Champions Classic features Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State. Each of these elite programs has gone to the final four at least once in the past decade.
Last year, in the 2020 Champions Classic, Michigan State came home with a win at Duke(75-69) and Kansas overcame Kentucky in a comeback victory(65-62). We’ll see if Michigan State and Kansas can win in back-to-back years.
This year, Madison Square Garden will host the event. In a vibrant stadium where fans will be allowed, a sense of normalcy comes back as college basketball season begins.
Kentucky vs Duke
TV schedule: Tuesday, November 9, 9:30 pm (approx) ET. ESPN
After two disastrous seasons by both these blood blue programs, Duke and Kentucky seek a bounce-back year in 2021-22.
John Calipari has spent the offseason reconstructing the Wildcats’ roster. As the fourth-ranked point guard prospect in the 2021 class, freshman TyTy Washington will lead the team on both sides of the ball, alongside a slew of veteran transfers and a solid recruiting class. The strength of the team will lie in the depth of the backcourt, as Kentucky gets former Davidson guard Kellan Grady (17.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg last year) and former Georgia guard Sahvir Wheeler (14.0 ppg, 7.4 apg). The biggest addition comes from former West Virginia big man Oscar Tshiebwe (8.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg), whose rebounding talents will make an immediate impact. The Wildcats have several key returnees from last season, including Junior small forward Keion Brooks, who will likely be an effective threat from the wing.
Another huge change for the Kentucky program this season is the coaching staff. Under head coach Calipari, the team brings in former assistant Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman as well. Despite the departure of longtime assistant Kenny Payne, both Antigua and Coleman were assistants for No. 1-seed Illinois last season and will bring in a winning mentality.
On the other side of the ball, Coach K has put behind last year’s 13-11 season. He gets back four key players from last season. Forward Wendell Moore (9.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg last year) and center Mark Williams (7.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg) begin a formidable frontcourt. Sophomore point guard and a preseason watch list player for Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award, Jeremy Roach(8.7 ppg, 2.8 apg) will run the offense. He’ll be joined by Senior Captain Joey Baker, who hopes to become a more productive contributor this season.
The Blue Devils take in a top-five recruiting class with an up-and-coming all-star and team’s anchor Paolo Banchero, as well as AJ Griffin, Trevor Keels, and Jaylen Blakes.
These are two very talented teams playing on Tuesday night in their first games of the season. Although Banchero may be the most talented player on the court, the depth and well-rounded strength on the Kentucky roster will make this game a good one. In the end, Duke is introducing fewer players into the fold while Kentucky may face some chemistry issues from lack of experience to begin the season. Kentucky also lacks interior defense going up against some of the best big men in the nation with Paolo, Mark Williams and Theo John off the bench. Additionally, the Blue Devils seem like they’ll have their defense facilitating more smoothly on opening night. With that being said, Coach K’s last first game seems like one he’ll take home.
Prediction: Duke 72, Kentucky 65
Kansas vs Michigan State
TV schedule: Tuesday, November 9, 7:00 pm ET. ESPN
Both Kansas and Michigan State failed to live up to expectations last season after being early exits in the 2020-21 March Madness Tournament. Both programs look to take further steps this season.
The Jayhawks will return everyone besides Marcus Garrett. They’ll get another year out of key guard Ochai Agbaji (14.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg last year), who can make an impact at every level of the ball, especially from beyond the arc. They also return 6-foot-8 rebounding machine Jalen Wilson and All-Big 12 second-team honors David McCormack, who both averaged double-digit points last season.
They’ll be adding in a few foundational pieces into the mix with their transfers, including point guard Remy Martin from Arizona State who will solidify the backcourt besides Agbaji. As the Big 12 Player of the Year, Martin is a huge pickup and gives the Jayhawks a reliable facilitator who can create for himself and others. Martin was first-team All-Pac-12 last season while averaging 19.1 points and 3.7 assists. Kansas also added Joseph Yesufu from Drake and Division II transfer Cam Martin, who averaged 25 points and 9.1 rebounds while making 45 percent of his three-pointers.
Alternatively, Michigan State will also be returning some start-studded players. Senior forwards
(9.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg last year) and Gabe Brown (7.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg) are back. With Gabe Brown gunning at the small forward position, Michigan State’s game has become more fast-paced and efficient. The team gets Senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. back, who will see more minutes this season as he tries to improve his offensive outlook.
The Spartans have also lost a ton of key players from last year. Leading scorer Aaron Henry went on to the NBA and four scholarship players transferred, including Rocket Watts. Although this causes some uncertainty, the Spartans have several adequate gap fillers with their transfer and recruiting class. They add in former Northeastern point guard Tyson Walker, who averaged 19 points per game last year. They also gained highly touted five-star recruit Max Christie, a talented sharpshooter from deep.
Similar to the Duke-Kentucky matchup, this game will be an exciting one to watch with two revamped teams going at it. Both teams have vastly talented players, but it seems like Kansas has the edge in this game. Tom Izzo’s squad will put up a solid fight with their aggressive defense; however, Kansas’ experience, as well as talent at shooting beyond the arc, will likely take over.
Prediction: Kansas 69, Michigan State 59
First official spread for the Champions Classic
Bet Rivers has the Duke Blue Devils favored by 1.5 points over the Kentucky Wildcats in Tuesday’s regular-season opener. The other Champions Classic matchup has the Kansas Jayhawks favored by five points over the Michigan State Spartans.
College basketball analyst Jeff Goodman has his money on the underdogs.
Early lines for the Champions Classic, per @BetRivers:
Kansas -5 over Michigan State
Duke -1.5 over Kentucky
I’m all about the dogs in both games.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) November 3, 2021
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