Somewhere a few years ago, in a conference room at ESPN, probably, somebody came up with an idea to spice up the beginning of college basketball season. November already had a few marquee college basketball tournaments, but it’s a month often devoid of big-time games as teams try to get their legs under them. But this idea, to get four of the game’s biggest schools to come together for one night of brilliance, was different. Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Duke, they posed, could combine to play a double-header at a neutral venue, and it would be magical.
Whoever had that idea deserves a raise.
The Champions Classic was an instant success. Kentucky knocked off Kansas in Madison Square Garden two years ago in what became a preview of the national championship game. But this year’s Classic, which tips off tonight at 7:30 Eastern in Chicago, is even better. It may even prove the best one-day event the sport has ever seen outside of the Final Four.
Top-ranked Kentucky takes on No. 2 Michigan State tonight, with No. 4 Duke and No. 5 Kansas immediately following. There will be more than a dozen future NBA players on the floor at Chicago’s United Center over the course of the double-header, a half-dozen of which could be lottery picks in next year’s draft. The three best freshmen in the nation, guys who might contend for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award right now if they were there, will be there too: Julius Randle for Kentucky, Jabari Parker for Duke, and Andrew Wiggins for Kansas. It features four of the game’s best coaches and, in the marquee battle, the juxtaposition of Kentucky’s stable of freshmen and sophomores against Michigan State’s depth and experience.
Though college basketball officially kicked off Friday, the Champions Classic begins the season in earnest, and the sport likely has never seen anything like it. If we’re lucky, the Classic will produce not only two brilliant games but another precursor to March, when all four teams are expected to contend for the national title. There’s a better than decent chance that all four of these teams could play another double-header next March at the Final Four in Dallas. But as good as it might be, the season will go on for all four teams no matter what happens in Chicago, so with that in mind, here are a few things to watch as the Classic — and the basketball season — unfolds:
The State of Kentucky: A Kentucky native like myself might argue that the Bluegrass has always been the center of the college basketball world, but there’s no arguing it anymore. Kentucky and John Calipari won the national title in 2012. Louisville and Rick Pitino won it in 2013. Kentucky’s 2013 season was a disappointment, but thanks to arguably the greatest freshman class in basketball history, the Wildcats entered the season as the preseason favorite to win their ninth national championship this year. In addition to Randle, the Cats have twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and sharp-shooter James Young. The team has already sparked comparisons to Calipari’s freshman-laden national title team — and (in my opinion, unreasonable) talk of an undefeated season.
Louisville, meanwhile, lost point guard Peyton Siva and center Gorgui Dieng from last year’s title team. And somehow they might have gotten even better. Russ Smith, one of the game’s most entertaining (and maddening) players, returns, and Pitino replaced Siva with junior college point guard Chris Jones. Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan (who will be available at some point after serving a suspension) should have no trouble replacing Dieng. So the Cards enter the season ranked third in the country and are among the bevy of teams that could keep their rivals down the road from raising another championship banner in Rupp Arena. Louisville also boasts the season’s feel-good story of the year in guard Kevin Ware, who will return to the court after a gruesome injury that threatened to end his career during last year’s Sweet Sixteen victory over Duke.
Interestingly enough, Kentucky and Louisville are also contenders on the women’s side, where they enter the season ranked sixth and seventh, respectively (we’ll preview the women’s season later this week).
New Leagues, New And Old Rivals: Football-related conference shifts brought about the death of the old Big East, which spent the last decade or so atop the college basketball landscape. But the end of one conference has only made others better. Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh, long consistent contenders in the Big East, are now in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where they’ll battle college basketball bluebloods like Duke and North Carolina (and, for one year, Maryland) for the conference crown.
The Big East’s spurned Catholic schools — Georgetown, Marquette, St. John’s, Villanova, Providence, DePaul, and Seton Hall — meshed with three up-and-coming mid-majors in Butler, Creighton, and Xavier, to form an intriguing new league that will feature one of the game’s best players, Creighton’s Doug McDermott, in his final collegiate season. The newly-formed American Athletic Conference temporarily reunites old rivals Louisville and Memphis, who along with Connecticut and and Cincinnati could put together an interesting conference race in the league’s first season.
It’ll be weird to see the Big East without ‘Cuse and Pitt, and the shaking isn’t done yet, since by next year Louisville will move to the ACC and Maryland and Rutgers will join the Big Ten, but it creates some interesting old and new rivalries in the basketball world, even if some of them will only last a year.
Rule Changes: After scoring reached a historic low in the 2012-2013 season, NCAA officials made some changes to boost offense and increase scoring. Namely, it redefined the way the block/charge will be called around the basket — a good thing, since that’s a call that has always plagued the college game and encouraged getting in the way instead of actually playing defense. Officials are also supposed to use their whistles more when it comes to hand-checking and bumping ball-handlers. That’s also, I think, a positive change in the long-run, but given the way college basketball has been played and taught for years, it has the potential to turn many of the games this year, especially early in the season, into drawn out fouling extravaganzas. How coaches and players react, though, could have a major impact on the season, and the changes will hopefully turn out to be a good start toward opening the college game back up.
Five Non-Conference Games To Watch:
The Champions Classic (Michigan State-Kentucky/Duke-Kansas), November 11 in Chicago.
North Carolina-Michigan State, December 4 in East Lansing.
Kansas-Florida, December 10 in Gainesville.
Arizona-Michigan, December 14 in Ann Arbor.
Louisville-Kentucky, December 28 in Lexington.
Probably Wrong Conference Predictions: Syracuse will outlast Duke and Carolina to win the ACC title, while Michigan State will hold off challenges from Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten. Kansas and Oklahoma State will battle to the wire for the Big XII crown, which Kansas will win (again), and Georgetown will finish ahead of Marquette to win the first new Big East title. Arizona will win an improved PAC 12. And while Kentucky and Louisville will both see challenges from Florida and Memphis, respectively, they’ll both manage win the SEC and AAC titles. I’m not going to pick a Final Four just yet, but suffice it to say that the Champions Classic is an ideal start to a season with plenty of talented players and potentially great teams that could give us a Final Four that’s just as good even if it’s four other teams that end up in Dallas.