INDIANAPOLIS — For more than a decade, for reasons that never made even a lick of sense, the college basketball season annually started on a Friday with a handful of compelling games and a bunch of junk.
It was so dumb.
There was no pop leading into opening day because opening day was the day before a weekend in which college and professional football dominated headlines. And by the time the weekday talk shows, on both radio and television, returned on the subsequent Monday, everything that happened in college basketball on the previous Friday was a distant memory overshadowed by the likes of Nick Saban and Tom Brady.
The smarter option was always starting on Tuesday.
So kudos to the NCAA decision-makers who finally listened and adjusted. Because, for the first time in a long time, college basketball will launch its season in a way that allows it to be the focal point of sports conversations — both throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday morning. The only competition is a MAC football game and four NBA contests that do not involve the Warriors or LeBron. So who cares? And, even better, this season is starting with a bang via the always star-studded Champions Classic.
- No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 10 Michigan State
- No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Duke
So what we have here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse are four top-10 teams led by four Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coaches with a combined eight NCAA Tournament championships — five of which belong to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Eight of the top 15 prospects from the Class of 2018, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, will be on display — namely No. 1 RJ Barrett (Duke), No. 2 Cam Reddish (Duke), No. 5 Zion Williamson (Duke), No. 9 EJ Montgomery (Kentucky), No. 10 Quintin Grimes (Kansas), No. 12 Ashton Hagans (Kentucky), No. 14 Keldon Johnson (Kentucky) and No. 15 Tre Jones (Duke). And, according to Jonathan Givony’s latest mock draft, we’ll be watching five of the top eight players who will be selected in next June’s NBA Draft. — namely Barrett, Williamson, Reddish, Grimes and Johnson.
Strong. Strong. Strong.
Here are some thoughts on both games and all four teams.
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 10 Michigan State
Tip: 7 p.m. ET
Line: Kansas -5
On Kansas: I’m really looking forward to the debut of Dedric Lawson — the former Memphis standout who, along with his brother (KJ Lawson), transferred to Kansas after ex-Memphis coach Tubby Smith demoted his father (Keelon Lawson) into an administrative role weeks after getting the job in April 2016. The brothers sat out last season per normal NCAA transfer rules. But both are eligible now. And Dedric Lawson just averaged 24.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in the Jayhawks’ two exhibitions, which makes us look smart for naming him a CBS Sports Preseason First Team All-American. The best part? Lawson was 6-of-8 from 3-point range in the two exhibitions. And that’s encouraging because even though the 6-foot-9 forward always shot 3-pointers comfortably while at Memphis, for whatever reason, he never made a good percentage. Over the past year, though, I’ve been told his jumper improved and improved and improved. And if what Lawson did in the exhibitions is any indication, he’s going to be a matchup nightmare for Michigan State and just about everybody else Kansas plays this season while attempting to win a 15th consecutive Big 12 title.
On Michigan State: The Spartans lost two lottery picks (Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges), did not enroll a top-15 recruiting class, and still have a preseason top-10 team that’s again picked to win the Big Ten’s regular-season title. That’s a testament to Tom Izzo — plus the fact that four of the top six scorers, including three-double-digit scorers, are back from a 30-win team. My favorite of the bunch is Cassius Winston, who shot 50.7 percent from the field, 49.7 percent from 3-point range and 90.0 percent from the free throw line last season while averaging 12.6 points and 6.9 assists. If you’re looking for a dark-horse Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, somebody who could replace Purdue’s Carsen Edwards as the favorite, go with Winston. But if Michigan State is going to upset the nation’s top-ranked team here, it’ll have to be better with the ball than it was last season when it committed turnovers on 19.2 percent of its possessions. That ranked 236th nationally. But the good news, or at least the possible good news, is that 28.1 percent of those turnovers belonged to Jackson and Bridges, both of whom are now in the NBA. So perhaps, in a weird way, at least on this singular issue, their departures could turn out to be addition by subtraction.
Prediction: Kansas 75, Michigan State 73
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Duke
Tip: 9:30 p.m. ET
Line: Kentucky -1
On Kentucky: I have the Wildcats ranked No. 1 in the Top 25 And One — not because of their freshmen but because of their non-freshmen. I’ve explained this many times, and did so again on Sunday night’s Eye On College Basketball Podcast, but when John Calipari has meaningful non-freshmen his Kentucky teams are almost always awesome from start to finish. He has three players on his roster right now — Reid Travis, PJ Washington and Quade Green — who have already averaged at least 9.0 points per game at the Division I level. The only other time Calipari has entered a season at Kentucky with that was 2011-12. The result was a national championship. And if you believe either Travis, Washington and/or Green will be one of UK’s top three scorers this season, and that they’ll each be among UK’s top six scorers this season, then this will be Calipari’s fifth team at Kentucky to have non-freshmen in those roles. Now check this out: The first time was 2010. That team started 19-0, finished 35-1 and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The second time was 2012. That team started 32-1, finished 38-2, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and won the national title. The third time was 2015. That team started 38-0, finished 38-1, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and finished ranked No. 1 at KenPom. And the fourth time was 2016. That team started 7-0, finished 27-9 and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. (Note: Even though that 2016 season was still successful by any normal measuring stick, it would’ve been a lot more successful had UK gotten anything of substance from its top recruit, Skal Labissiere. The five-star prospect was basically a non-factor for a variety of reasons. And yet Kentucky was still good because Kentucky had good roster-balance.) Bottom line, when Calipari has at least three non-freshmen in important roles, he’s dynamite. And that’s why, this season, I think the Wildcats are going to consistently be great and mostly avoid the ups-and-downs some recent UK teams have endured.
On Duke: Out of the four teams here in Indianapolis, Duke is the rated next-to-last in the human polls. But everybody acknowledges the Blue Devils have more talent than anybody else in the country. It’s just very, very young talent. Duke doesn’t have a single returning player who averaged more than 3.9 points per game, or grabbed more than 3.6 rebounds per game, last season. And no team in the history of college basketball has ever won a national title with so little substance returning. On the other hand, no team in the history of college basketball has ever had three top-five picks in the same NBA Draft — and Duke might do that next June thanks to the presence of RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish. So these Blue Devils are super-intriguing. And, trust me, though Kentucky might — I repeat, might — be the better team in the nightcap, based on the experience the Wildcats bring to the table, the stars will be in Coach K’s huddles. The RJ/Zion Show starts Tuesday night. It should make for a fantastic ride.
Prediction: Kentucky 74, Duke 71
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