Champions Classic Preview: Hyped freshmen, four top five teams, best event ever?

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Andrew Wiggins (AP) and Jabari Parker (AP)

Tuesday is an indisputably great day for college hoop heads around the country, as we not only get 30 straight hours of hoops, but the marathon session of basketball is capped off with the Champions Classic, the single best in-season event ever.

That’s right.

I said it.

I’ll even take it a step further: I can’t remember ever being this excited about a basketball game that wasn’t in someway associated with the NCAA tournament. The first day of the Round of 64 is always incredible, and there is very little in this world that tops a great Final Four matchup. But this? This Champions Classic? It’s a completely different beast, and one of the biggest reasons why is the unknown. This freshmen class is as loaded as any in recent memory, and we’ll have the three most-hyped up talents from that class in the first chance for the nation to see them locked into matchups that couldn’t have been scripted any better.

The opening act features No. 1 Kentucky taking on No. 2 Michigan State. Kentucky, as you should know by now, is as loaded as loaded can be, with a historically strong recruiting class buffered by the return of Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress for their sophomore seasons. The alphadog in Cal’s latest recruiting haul is Julius Randle, a 6-foot-9 powerhouse of a power forward, a guy that’s amassed 45 points and 29 boards in his first two games as a collegian. We’ll get into it more in a second, but there have been two freshmen in the Class of 2013 that have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, neither of whom was Randle despite the fact that he could end up being the best of the lot.

source: Getty Images
Getty Images

Randle will lead this group of youngsters into a battle with a veteran Michigan State team, giving us the earliest matchup of the top two teams in the AP poll ever. The Spartans are old by today’s standards, starting two seniors, two sophomores and not a single freshman. The Spartans feature a pair of potential all-americans in Adreian Payne and Gary Harris and are coached by Tom Izzo, who is arguably college basketball’s best in-game tactician. One and Done U. and John Calipari, long portrayed as all that is wrong with college sports, takes on the beacon of light that is Izzo and Michigan State. Hey, I’m not saying I buy it, but it’s not difficult to turn this matchup into a Good vs. Evil fight to the death.

And what’s crazy is that it may not even be the most intriguing matchup of the night.

The nightcap features No. 4 Duke taking on No. 5 Kansas, a game that is must-see TV regardless of who is actually on the court. Bill Self vs. Coach K? Yes, please. But what makes this game so tantalizing is the matchup between Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, who both happen to be two of the sport’s most fascinating people while doubling as two of the game’s most promising prospects.

Parker is a kid from the South Side of Chicago that went to Simeon HS, the same program that produced Derrick Rose. He also happens to be a terrific student and a devout Mormon that kept BYU on his list until the end of his recruitment. How often do you see studious Mormons come out of the South Side of Chicago, let alone ones that happen to be future NBA stars? Parker was long considered to be the top prospect in the Class of 2013, but a foot injury derailed his final summer on the AAU circuit and forced him into playing his senior season a bit out of shape. Once touted by SI as the best player since LeBron, he became the afterthought at the top of the Class of 2013.

That’s partially because Andrew Wiggins reclassified. Wiggins is an interesting dude in his own right, a native of Toronto that is the child of a former NBA player and a former Olympian. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Wiggins also happens to be one of the most sensational athletes that has ever matriculated to the college ranks. A superstar who became a household name before he ever set foot on a college campus, Wiggins wants nothing to do with the spotlight that comes with athletic superstardom, keeping everyone out of the loop during his recruitment and, eventually, announcing his decision to attend Kansas in a gym packed with friends, family, teammates and just a single, local newspaper reporter.

Two of college basketball’s premiere programs who both happen to be in the top five square off, and the story ends up being the matchup between two freshmen. Think about that.

The Champions Classic is so much more than simply what happens on the court on Tuesday night.

But since there are actual games to be played, let’s take a look at them:

AP photo

No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 7:30 p.m.

The key to the season for both the Wildcats and the Spartans comes down to point guard play. Keith Appling is now heading into his third year as Michigan State’s starting point guard, and he just hasn’t made the jump from ‘good player’ to ‘great point guard’. Michigan State needs him to be more than just a scorer and a guy that brings the ball up the floor. He needs to be a leader, a creator, a coach on the floor. The same can be same for Andrew Harrison, the twin that happens to handle the ball, but where the Spartans will look to Appling to take on more of a scoring role, Andrew needs to be a facilitator. He needs to accept the fact that he’s not going to be the face of this program. He may not even be one of the first two options offensively. Can he embrace that role?

The key for Michigan State is going to be whether or not they can slow down Randle, and it just so happens that they have an athlete on their roster that can matchup with him. Branden Dawson is a physical specimen in his own right, coming off of a big game in the season opener against UMass-Lowell. Payne will likely draw the assignment of matching up with Cauley-Stein or Dakari Johnson or whatever center Coach Cal has on the floor, leaving Dawson to tangle with Randle. Kentucky has put an emphasis on allowing Randle to spend his time out on the perimeter, but Dawson has the strength and quickness to make things difficult for Randle when he faces up, which is why I think Randle will see more time on the block Tuesday. He’s got a couple inches on Dawson and, quite frankly, is big, strong and athletic enough that there are few big men he won’t be able to overpower this year.

For Kentucky, slowing down Harris will be their focus. Harris was banged up last season, but he got healthy this summer and looks like a different player now that he’s able to attack the basket again. The Wildcats have big wings — Aaron Harrison, James Young, even Alex Poythress — so it will be interesting to see who locks horns with the sophomore scoring guard.

Kentucky’s youngsters are used to playing in the spotlight. They’ve done it their entire high school and AAU careers. They’ve done it in the two months they’ve been on campus. But taking the court at the United Center on national TV in front of a packed house against a National Title contender is a much, much different beast. How will they handle the moment? Will they handle the pressure? Who will emerge as a role player and a glue guy? Because the scary thing here is that, if Kentucky actually lives up to their immense potential, this may end up being the best chance for any team to keep them from going undefeated.

No. 4 Duke vs. No. 5 Kansas, 10:00 p.m.

The matchup that will get all the attention is the battle between Wiggins and Parker, which is ironic because they may not even end up guarding each other.

Duke is a weird team this season. They are loaded with perimeter depth, but there really isn’t a bruiser on this team’s roster. Their best lineup is arguably one that features Parker at the five and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood at the four, which creates an interesting dilemma for Bill Self. How does he set his defense? Perry Ellis is a guy with some breakout potential this season, but I’m not sure he can guard Hood or Parker out on the perimeter. Tarik Black, who transferred in from Memphis, and freshman Joel Embiid probably cannot, either. If you remember back to last season, the team that Kansas had the most trouble against was Iowa State, who was a banked-in Ben McLemore three and a blown charge call away from sweeping the Jayhawks. Like this year’s Duke team, they spread the floor and used versatile big men that can hit a three to throw the Jayhawks defense out of whack.

Yes, this is a completely new Kansas team, but they are still coached by Bill Self. They still would, ideally, like to be able to park Black or Embiid in the lane defensively. Will the Jayhawks go small? Will they play a zone? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Self use a triangle-and-two defense, which he is notorious for, to try and get the Blue Devils out of a rhythm.

The other issue with having Black or Embiid out there is that neither is threat to score in the post, which makes it difficult to take advantage of Duke’s lack of size. Ellis can score down-low, but he’s also small enough that Parker and/or Hood can hold their own against him on the block. Against Davidson, Duke played a man-to-man defense where they switched every exchange, which means that any time there was a screen off-the-ball or even something as simple as two players running by each other, Duke switched. That’s a tough defense to run sets against, particularly when you have a point guard that isn’t exactly known for his ability to control the offense or consistently create scoring chances.

Add in the issues with the youth and inexperience on the Kansas roster, and this looks like it will be a tough matchup for Kansas.

Jalen Coleman-Lands cleared to practice

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 10: Jarrod Uthoff #20 of the Iowa Hawkeyes defends against Jalen Coleman-Lands #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini in the second round of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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When Illinois takes on Southeast Missouri State in the opener of the 2016-17 season, the Fighting Illini should have it’s starting backcourt out on the floor.

According to Jon Rothstein, Jalen Coleman-Lands has been cleared for all basketball activities. The sophomore two-guard has been recovering from a broken bone in his right hand.

The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 10.3 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from three, as a freshman. He, along with Malcolm Hill and Michael Thorne Jr., is one of three returning players who averaged double figures last season.

Coleman-Lands will team up with Tracy Abrams, a point guard who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing the past two seasons due to injuries.

This could prove to be a make-or-break year for John Groce, who enters his fifth season at the helm. He guided the Illini to an NCAA Tournament in his first season, but hasn’t been back since.

The key for the Illini is health. Abrams gives them experience and leadership, but it won’t be a surprise if there’s some rust in his game after spending the past two seasons on the sideline. Having a healthy Coleman-Lands will help stabilize the backcourt, while Hill, an all-conference caliber forward, and Thorne anchor the frontcourt.

NBC Sports projected Illinois to finish eighth in the Big Ten this season.

Curtis Jones jumps over Tom Crean

Tom Crean
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Indiana held its annual Hoosier Hysteria on Saturday night.

One of the highlights from the team’s dunk contest was when freshman guard Curtis Jones jumped over Indiana head coach Tom Crean.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a newcomer us his coach as a dunk contest prop. Last week, Rawle Alkins cleared Arizona head coach Sean Miller en route to a reverse jam.

Like Alkins, Jones was a sought-after scorer. The 6-foot-4 two-guard was rated No. 69 overall in the Class of 2016 by Rivals. He picked Indiana over offers from Cal, Cincinnati, Georgetown and more than a dozen other high-major programs.

WATCH: Edmond Sumner take off from the foul line

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 03:  Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers dunks the ball during the game against the St. John's Red Storm at Cintas Center on February 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Edmond Sumner is a big reason why Xavier is likely going to be a preseason top-10 team.

On Saturday night, during Musketeer Madness, Sumner won the team’s dunk contest when he took off from the foul line.

Sumner defeated freshmen Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin. J.P. Macura, the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, took home the honors last year.

The 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore is coming off a debut season in which he averaged 11.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

WATCH: Duke goes crazy for Chase Jeter’s bottle flip

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Chase Jeter #2 of the Duke Blue Devils looks on in the second half against the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The bottle flip has become an international sensation in recent months.

It’s as simple as it sounds: flipping a water bottle in the air, attempting to have it land upright.

Duke sophomore forward Chase Jeter, in front of 9,300-plus fans, successfully pulled off the bottle flip on Saturday night at Duke’s Craziness.

Jeter, the 6-foot-10, played in a reserve role as a freshman, averaging 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game last season. He will be part of a loaded frontline that includes heralded freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, as well as redshirt senior Amile Jefferson, who returns to the lineup following a foot injury.

Auburn to honor Charles Barkley with a statue

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Former NBA player and commentator Charles Barkley looks on prior to the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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The greatest player in Auburn program history will honored with a statue outside of the team’s home arena.

The university announced that Charles Barkley, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, will be the fourth athlete to be given a statue, joining Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton.

“It just means a great deal to me,” Barkley said in a statement. “Being a kid from Alabama, going to Auburn. I think everybody knows what Auburn means to me. It’s going to be pretty cool.”

Barkley, currently working as an analyst for TNT, was the SEC Player of the Year in 1984, as well as a second team All-American. He averaged 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in 84 appearances for the Tigers.

His number 34 is retired at Auburn.