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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.

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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:

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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.

Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament moving to Orlando amid Zika concerns

Lon Kruger
(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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Amid concerns over the Zika virus, the annual Puerto Rico Tip-Off announced a change in venue on Monday. Rather than staying on the island, the tournament will move to Orlando and all games will be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney.

The dates and teams will remain the same for the event as it will be played Thursday, Nov. 17, Friday, Nov. 18 and Sunday, Nov. 20. The field for the event includes Arizona State, Clemson, Davidson, Missouri, Northern Iowa, Oklahoma, Tulane and Xavier.

“We enjoy the beauty and accommodations that are afforded in Puerto Rico and wanted to make every effort in playing the event in San Juan, but the concern for student-athlete and spectator welfare became the primary driver in the decision,” Pete Derzis, senior vice president of ESPN Events said in the official release.  “We intend to return to Puerto Rico in the future.”

Puerto Rico is currently under a Level 2 alert for Zika according to the CDC. Since there have been cases of Zika on the island with native mosquitoes, it’s probably a smart move to eliminate all concerns over the virus if they can easily move the tournament elsewhere. It probably isn’t ideal for fans who purchased travel packages to Puerto Rico to watch the event, but it’s a small price to pay for the safety of everyone involved.

PHOTO: Purdue unveils statue of John Wooden outside Mackey Arena

John Wooden (Purdue Athletics)
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John Wooden will forever be associated with the UCLA program for what he did while coaching there.

10 national titles in 12 years, including seven in a row. Not bad, right?

What some people may forget is that before he got into coaching, Wooden was one of the best basketball players in the world. He played his collegiate ball at Purdue, where he was a three-time all-american and the 1932 National Player of the Year.

To honor Wooden’s legacy as one of the greatest Boilermakers ever, Purdue built a statue of Wooden and unveiled it in front of Mackey Arena this weekend:

“Not many people think of Johnny Wooden as a Boilermaker, but when I got here in 1957, some of the old-timers still remembered him as a player,” Jim Hicks, the alumnus that donated the statue, said. “I’m so delighted that people will see this statue and read his Pyramid of Success because I think the pyramid was his most important contribution.”

One of the neat touches of the statue: Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is right there for all to see.

North Carolina lands third commitment in 2017 class

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 23: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks on during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Iowa State Cyclones at the AT&T Center on March 23, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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North Carolina picked up their third commitment in the Class of 2017 on Monday in big man Brandon Huffman.

A four-star prospect who will play his final season of high school ball at Word of God Academy in North Carolina, Huffman’s strength at this point in his development is as a defensive presence around the basket. He stands 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and should be able to help replace Kennedy Meeks, who graduates this spring.

Huffman’s development on the offensive end of the floor isn’t quite there yet. A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Huffman is still learning how to be more influential on that end.

Huffman joins Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek in UNC’s 2017 class.

VCU lands third commitment in Class of 2017

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VCU landed their third commitment in the Class of 2017 over the weekend, as 6-foot-8 forward Sean Mobley announced that he will play his college ball for the Rams.

A three-star prospect, Mobley is a nice program piece for the Rams. He’s not an overpowering athlete or a menace on the low block, but he is good rebounder, a guy that can space the floor with his jump shot and a smart player that should be able to find and fit into a role.

Mobley picked VCU over Dayton and West Virginia, joining top 75 point guard and big man Marcus Santos-Silva in Will Wade’s recruiting class.

Top 25 Non-Conference Games

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 30:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats and head coach Bill Self of the Kansas Jayhawks greet each other prior to the game at Allen Fieldhouse on January 30, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Beginning in September and running up until November 11th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Non-conference scheduling has rightfully been much maligned in recent years with many programs opting to keep their non-league slates as a tune-up rather than a challenge, but there are still plenty of gems out there in the season’s first two months. Neutral-site event games again provide some of the strongest matchups, but there are plenty of on-campus contests that will be among the year’s best as well.

THE TOP 15

1. Kansas vs. Duke – Champions Classic (New York) – Nov. 15 (9 p.m.): The Champions Classic has easily become the most anticipated non-conference event most years (until the PK80 next year), and this year’s matchup between the Jayhawks and Blue Devils is the premier non-conference game of the season. Both teams return a ton from last year’s successful seasons and also add stellar recruiting classes. It’s not hard to envision this as a Final Four or national title preview, and there’s a very real chance that it could end up being a matchup between No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Kansas.

2. Michigan State at Duke – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9:30 p.m.): This game gets the nod over similarly interesting matchups because it’s going to be played on campus in Durham at Cameron Indoor. It pits two Hall of Fame coaches operating near the height of their powers with teams expected to contend for a national championship. It’s sure to be an electric evening.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

3. Kentucky at Louisville – Dec. 21 (7 p.m.): John Calipari has another powerhouse on his hands while Rick Pitino’s squad is expected to continue its upward progression and be a potential top-10 team. This in-state rivalry game will have all the gravitas it normally has along with the national implications that come when two potential No. 1 seeds meet in the non-conference.

4. Kansas at Kentucky – Jan. 28 (6 p.m.): The SEC/Big 12 Challenge is largely irrelevant this season because the Big 12 is down and the SEC looks like a mid-major conference outside of Kentucky. But the Wildcats, who nearly beat Kansas in overtime in Phog Allen last season, and the Jayhawks are both preseason top five teams loaded with NBA talent and positioned to make a run towards another national title.

5. Michigan State vs. Kentucky – Champions Classic (New York) – Nov. 15 (7 p.m.): The other half of the Champions Classic, the Spartans and Wildcats will provide nearly just as much entertainment. The matchup between Michigan State’s super-recruit Miles Bridges and Kentucky’s squadron of them could be the highlight of the night.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 19: London Perrantes #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers dribbles the ball against Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the first half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on December 19, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
UVA’s London Perrantes guarded by Villanova’s Josh Hart (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

6. Virginia at Villanova – Jan. 28 – (1 p.m.): Virginia deserves credit as one of the elite programs that’s unafraid to challenge themselves with home-and-home series, but I can’t imagine that, when Tony Bennett signed up for this, he knew he’d be taking his team on the road, in the middle of ACC play, to square off with the reigning national champs. It will be an intriguing matchup of styles, both in terms of basketball and the suits worn by the opposing head coaches.

7. UCLA at Kentucky – Dec. 3 (12:30 p.m.): Two of the most storied programs in the sport, the Bruins and Wildcats both figure to have interesting seasons as Steve Alford looks to satiate uneasy UCLA fans and Calipari looks to add another national championship to his resume. UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball facing off against Kentucky’s backcourt in Rupp Arena will garner a lot of headlines. And we shouldn’t forget that the Bruins picks off Kentucky in LA last December.

8. North Carolina vs. Kentucky – Las Vegas – Dec. 17 (5:45 p.m.): UNC is coming off a season where they finished as the national runners-up. Losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson will hurt, no doubt, but there is still some talent on the roster. Kentucky, as we’ve mentioned, is once again loaded. Both teams will likely be ranked in the top-10 when they meet in Sin City in yet another clash of the sport’s heavyweights.

9. Michigan State vs. Arizona – Armed Forces Classic (Honolulu) – Nov. 11 (7 p.m.): Not a bad way to tip off the season with the Spartans and Wildcats squaring off in Hawaii on opening night. The game was originally to be played at Pearl Harbor, but was moved to the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawaii. Arizona may have lost Terrence Ferguson to the pros, but it’ll have plenty of firepower to match up against Michigan State with Allonzo Trier, Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Atkins.

10. Louisville vs. Indiana – Indianapolis – Dec. 31 (12:30 p.m.): This border battle game will be played off-campus at the home of the Pacers, but with Indy’s close proximity to both schools and a pair of fervent fanbases, this one should have that big-time collegiate feel with two top-15 teams.

11. Kansas vs. Indiana – Armed Forces Classic (Honolulu) – Nov. 11 (9 p.m.): The nightcap of the Armed Forces Classic is another incredibly strong game that will pit the two midwestern powers against each other. Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby will provide quite the test for Kansas’ revamped frontcourt while the Hoosiers will have to contend with one of the country’s strongest backcourts in Kansas’ Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham.

12. Wisconsin at Creighton – Gavitt Games – Nov. 15 (8:30 p.m.): The country knows how strong the Badgers will be this year after the transition to coach Greg Gard propelled them into the Sweet 16, but Creighton is flying a bit under the radar despite having some top-level talent in Mo Watson and Marcus Foster. The Blue Jays also have one of the more underrated home crowds in the game. This one will be a treat in the season’s opening week.

13. Arizona vs. Gonzaga – Naismith Memorial HOF Game (Los Angeles) – Dec. 3 (6:30 p.m.): Two West Coast powers face off in L.A. a month into the season with perhaps a seed line at stake. Gonzaga will likely open the season in the top-15 on the strength of getting senior center Przmek Karnowski back and the Nigel Williams-Goss eligible after transferring from Washington.

t-14. North Carolina at Indiana – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30 (9 p.m.)

t-14. Syracuse at Wisconsin – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9 p.m.): The ACC/Big Ten Challenge provides two more top games with the Tar Heels visiting Bloomington and the Badgers hosting the Orange. The Bryant-Kennedy Meeks matchup will be one to watch, while NBA scouts and draftniks will be tuning in to this one to see how Tyler Lydon and Nigel Hayes matchup. The game itself will provide college hoops fans plenty with the Badgers being a Big Ten favorite and Syracuse bolstering its ranks with Nebraska graduate transfer Andrew White.

15. Washington at Gonzaga – Dec. 7 (11 p.m.): The Huskies aren’t a lock to make the NCAA tournament this year, but this game will still be a must-watch thanks to Gonzaga’s strength, Markelle Fultz’s talent and it being an in-state rivalry game played on campus. Don’t underestimate how much these two fanbases dislike each other.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

TEN MORE TIMES YOU’LL NEED TO SET YOUR DVR

16. UConn vs. Syracuse – New York City – Dec. 5 (7 p.m.): Madison Square Garden will play host to this former Big East rivalry game. This is the loudest you’ll hear the Garden all season long, and that includes the games that the Knicks play.
17. Valparaiso at Oregon – Nov. 17 (9 p.m.): Valpo might be the best mid-major in the country and has a potential All-American in Alec Peters. The Ducks may not have Dillon Brooks for this one, but will still likely be ranked in the top-10.
18. Indiana vs Butler – Crossroads Classic – Dec. 17 (5 p.m.): A Hoosier State rivalry game that’s sure to be closely contested.
19. Villanova vs. Notre Dame – Never Forget Games (Newark, N.J.) – 12 p.m.: The defending champs take on one of the ACC’s best.
20. Purdue at Louisville – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30: Another strong game courtesy of the cross-conference challenge.
21. Villanova at Purdue – Nov. 14 (7 p.m.): This game got more difficult for the ‘Cats without Omari Spellman to combat Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas.
22. Northern Iowa vs. Xavier – Nov. 16 (12 p.m.): A sneaky-strong game with Xavier being a team that figures to push Villanova in the Big East and the Panthers featuring potential MVC player of the year Jeremy Morgan.
23. Oregon at Baylor – Nov. 15 (3:30 p.m.): This will be the Ducks’ only true road game in the non-conference. Baylor’s Johnathan Motley figures to be a tough guard for the Pac-12 favorites.
24. Arizona vs. Texas A&M – Dec 17 (1 p.m.): The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s team, but will still be a top-25 contender.
25. Florida State at Florida – Dec. 11 (4 p.m.): The Seminoles will bring quite a bit of talent with them to Gainesville in Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac for this intrastate rivalry game.

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 13: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks over Javion Ogunyemi #0 of the Siena Saints during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Grayson Allen (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)