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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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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.

DePaul adds 2018 commit

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Wisconsin guard John Diener has committed to DePaul, his grassroots program announced Wednesday night.

The 6-foot-4 Class of 2018 guard ends his recruitment rather early with offers also from instate schools Green Bay and Milwaukee. He’s known as a shooter and becomes the first commit for Dave Leitao in the 2018 class.

Diener, who plays with the Wisconsin Playground Warriors in the spring and summer, commits to the Blue Demons with them coming off a disappointing campaign, Leitao’s first in Chicago. DePaul went 9-22 overall and 3-15 in the Big East, finishing only ahead of St. John’s.

DePaul has been recruiting the Midwest hard with incoming 2016 recruits from La Lumiere School in Indiana, Sagninow, Mich. and locally in Chicago.

Four-star guard Fisher commits to TCU

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Jamie Dixon’s presence is already being felt in the Big 12 and on the recruiting trail.

TCU received its first commitment of the Dixon era when four-star 2016 point guard Jaylen Fisher announced his decision to join the Horned Frogs on Wednesday.

“Due to how comfortable my family and I are with the coaching staff,” Fisher posted from his Twitter account, “and the emphasis the university has put on making basketball a priority, I’m committing to be a student-athlete at TCU.”

Getting a consensus top-75 prospect, who was once committed to UNLV, is a heck of a coup for being just a couple months on the job. It instantly shows the Frogs are going to be a player for some of the country’s top players, which is a necessity if you have designs on making a move up the ladder of arguably the country’s best league in the Big 12.

Maybe the most gratifying thing for TCU, though, is the reason Fisher publicly stated for making his decision, the school’s “making basketball a priority.” The hoops program has suffered immensely in the Big 12 (while the football program has flourished), winning a total of eight games in their four seasons (including a winless 2014), but the school sank $72 million into renovating its arena, made an aggressive move in firing Trent Johnson and then went out and got its dream candidate, Dixon, an alum. Fisher’s commitment is the first time those moves have shown that commitment to basketball paying off.

 

Report: Izundu’s San Diego State transfer ban rescinded

Ernie Kent
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Washington State transfer Valentine Izundu will be visiting San Diego State after all.

Coach Ernie Kent has rescinded his restriction on the 6-foot-10 graduate transfer from visiting the Aztecs, according to a report from the Spokesman-Review, citing an anonymous source. Izundu will also be reportedly visiting Fresno State and UNLV.

Izundu had previously been barred from considering the Aztecs by Kent because of suspcisions of tampering. Izundu vigorously denied that was the case as at the center of the dispute was a trip he made to San Diego for spring break. He publicly said he did not have any contact with the SDSU coaching staff , though he attended an Aztecs NIT game.

Kent, though, appears to have relented, as many coaches who have similarly faces public pressure in such situations before him have. In this era where so much attention is being paid to player rights and welfare, there only seems to be growing public sentiment against programs restricting transfers beyond the absolute bare minimum is rarely going to go over well. It may make things more difficult for coaches and programs, but it’s the deck is largely already stacked in their favor in most every other instance.

Ex-Michigan State player Keith Appling faces weapons charges

Keith Appling
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DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) Authorities say former Michigan State basketball player Keith Appling faces charges including carrying a concealed weapon after he was found in possession of guns and marijuana in suburban Detroit.

The Wayne County prosecutor’s office says 24-year-old Appling was arrested outside a Dearborn club on Sunday night. Club security called police after seeing a man pull a gun from the trunk of a car.

Prosecutors say Appling was in the driver’s seat of the car when police arrived. Officers found a handgun under the driver’s seat, a loaded weapon in the trunk and a small amount of suspected marijuana.

Weapons and marijuana possession charges were announced Wednesday.

The court says he doesn’t have a lawyer on record.

Appling played for the Spartans from 2010-2014 and plays for the NBA’s development league.

UNLV transfer to finish career at Michigan State

UNLV forward Ben Carter, right, celebrates after his team defeated Oregon in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Las Vegas. UNLV won 80-69. (AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)
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Former UNLV center Ben Carter announced on Wednesday that he will be transferring to Michigan State to finish his collegiate career.

Carter, who began his career at Oregon, averaged 8.6 points and 6.0 boards in his one season with UNLV before tearing his ACL in late January. He spent two seasons with the Ducks before transferring to Vegas, which is why he’s eligible immediately for the Spartans.

And that’s the biggest reason that Tom Izzo and company targeted him.

The Spartans lost Deyonta Davis to the NBA Draft after one season, a fact that became an inevitability midway through the year but one that the Spartans didn’t necessarily plan for heading into last season. Carter isn’t going to be an instant impact kind of player, particularly not when he’s coming off of an ACL injury, but he is a big body and a veteran presence on a front line that wasn’t going have much of either.