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
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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:

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.

Talented Kentucky begins another year with high expectations

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 21:  The mascot of the Kentucky Wildcats in action against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KFC YUM! Center on March 21, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky coach John Calipari once again must figure out how to use his latest talented freshman class, which this year is big and fills voids at many positions.

All of which means another season of high expectations at a school where a national championship is always the standard.

After finishing 27-9 and losing in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 last spring, Kentucky appears capable of contending for a ninth NCAA title. This despite losing six players including several regulars such as Associated Press All-American guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, who combined to average 37 points per game last season, and 6-foot-11 Skal Labissiere.

Kentucky landed guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, both 6-foot-3 high school All-Americans who join sophomore Isaiah Briscoe (9.9 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) in the backcourt. All can handle the ball and shoot, giving Calipari some options, compared with last year’s squad run by Ulis.

“This team will probably have three guys having the ball, and we’ll play off them,” Calipari said. “One may have it more, but the other two are going to have it a significant amount of time. So that makes it different.”

But this recruiting class is all about the bigs with the additions of Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and Sacha Killeya-Jones – a pair of 6’10” All-Americans – and 6’9″ Wenyen Gabriel.

Adebayo has an NBA body and is fierce around the basket on both ends of the floor. Killeya-Jones and Gabriel are long and guard the rim as well.

The Wildcats also return size with 7-footer Isaac Humphries and 6’10” redshirt freshman Tai Wynyard, giving Kentucky its tallest frontcourt since the 38-1 team that reached the Final Four two years ago. Nobody’s making that grand comparison yet as the team works to form chemistry.

“We all want the same dream, so we just try to accomplish it together,” Monk said. “It’s easy to sacrifice if you have great players around you.”

Other things to watch in Kentucky this season:

MATURE BRISCOE: Isaiah Briscoe worked out with NBA teams last spring to gauge his pro prospects before returning for his sophomore season . He’s more seasoned by the experience, and more muscular. The biggest benefits might be his improved shooting – which Kentucky needs from him after an inconsistent freshman season – and his eagerness to lead. “It forced me to grow up,” Briscoe said of the process. “Being one of the few guys to come back (under Calipari), I’ll be able to lead these guys.”

BLUEGRASS GRAYBEARDS: Kentucky has seniors for the second straight season, both of whom could play bigger roles. Forward Derek Willis is working to add defense to his game after averaging career bests of 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds last season and becoming part of the rotation. Guard Dominique Hawkins just aims to stay healthy after his junior year was limited by injuries. He’s a physical defensive specialist being encouraged to shoot more this season.

COACH’S KID: If things get loud in Rupp near the end of a Kentucky rout, it might be fans clamoring for Calipari to put his son, Brad, on the floor. The 6-foot freshman is a walk-on with an eye toward coaching one day but figures to become a fan favorite for obvious reasons.

RENOVATED RUPP: The Wildcats’ home begins its 40th anniversary season with a new floor and center-hung scoreboard and video screen that has replaced the “Big Bertha” bank of loudspeakers, which resembled an oversized pine cone. The arena has already added high-definition video boards in the corners and other electronic features to enhance the game experience.

KEY GAMES: Kentucky’s always-tough nonconference schedule includes matchups against Michigan State on Nov. 15 in the Champions Classic; a home game against UCLA (Dec. 3); consecutive contests against North Carolina (Dec. 17) and at archrival Louisville (Dec. 21); and a Jan. 28 home game against Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.


See what NC State freshman did to Abdul-Malik Abu’s arm

SYRACUSE, NY - FEBRUARY 27:  Abdul-Malik Abu #0 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives to the basket as DaJuan Coleman #32 of the Syracuse Orange defends during the first half on February 27, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Rebounding can be a war at times. Even when it involves teammates.

NC State junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu, one of the best rebounders in the nation, showed up to ACC Media Day in Washington, D.C. earlier this week with battle scars from a recent drill with freshman forward Ted Kapita.

“When you’re battling for rebounds, there’s a lot of hand movements,” Abu said, according to Aaron Beard of the Associated Press. “And he has nails, so he’s just kind of like slicing through.”

Abu told reporters he had the first-year forward cut his nails shortly after the incident.

The 6-foot-8 Abu, the ACC’s top returning rebounder, averaged 12.9 points, 8.8 boards and 1.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season. Kapita is ranked as four-star recruit by Rivals.

The Wolfpack were picked to finish sixth in the loaded ACC.

Dana Altman: “No idea” if Dillon Brooks will be ready for season opener

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24:  Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks dunks the ball in the first half while taking on the Duke Blue Devils in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at the Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Oregon enters the 2016-17 season as a projected top-5 team. A lot of those lofty expectations are dependent on the health of Dillon Brooks, an All-American caliber forward heading his junior year.

Brooks had surgery on his foot this offseason and is still not back at practice yet for the Ducks. Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports spoke to Oregon head coach Dana Altman on Thursday. Altman is uncertain if he’ll have his star forward on the floor when the season tips in a few weeks.

“I have no idea,” Altman told FanRag Sports on Thursday when he was asked if Brooks would be ready for the season opener. “He’s out of the boot and he’s doing some non-contact stuff, but we still don’t know. He has another meeting scheduled with the doctor next week and we’ll go from there.”

The Ducks graduated Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin, but retained four starters, including rim protectors Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell, as well as Tyler Dorsey, who was third on the team in scoring as a freshman. They also add another ball handler in Dylan Ennis, who missed all but two games last season with a foot injury of his own.

But with a healthy Brooks, a nightmare matchup at a physical 6-foot-7, Oregon is a legitimate national championship contender.

Oregon begins the season on Nov. 11 against Army. Then after that, a meeting with arguably the best mid-major, Valparaiso, is sandwiched in between a pair of games with two potentially dangerous high-major teams in Baylor and Georgetown. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Pac-12 favorite, minus its star forward, could be slow out of the gates in 2016-17.

Mark Turgeon receives an extension from Maryland

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18: Head coach Mark Turgeon of the Maryland Terrapins looks on against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The University of Maryland announced on Thursday that Mark Turgeon’s contract would be extended through the 2022-23 season.

This adds four years to his previous deal. Turgeon is entering his sixth season at Maryland.

“I want to thank President [Wallace] Loh and [Director of Athletics] Kevin Anderson for their continued commitment and support of our program,” Turgeon said in a statement. “I am in this position because of the talented coaches and student-athletes that I have had the opportunity to work with over the past five years. Their commitment to our program is why Maryland Basketball continues to have an exciting and bright future.”

Once on the hot seat, Turgeon has gotten the Terrapins to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, the latter resulting in a spot in the Sweet 16. It was the first time in a decade he had reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, previously leading Wichita State to the Sweet 16 in 2006.

Maryland, a preseason top-25 team, lost four starters — Robert Carter Jr., Jake Layman, Diamond Stone and Rasheed Suliamon — from a season ago. But the Terps do retain Melo Trimble, one of the top lead guards in the nation, for his junior year.  Trimble will be surrounded by Damonte Dodd, Dion Wiley, Jaren Nickens, Duquesne grad transfer L.G. Gill and a quartet of four-star freshmen.

NBC Sports projected Maryland to finish sixth in the Big 10 this season.

RIP Vine: The best college basketball vines
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Today, Twitter announced that they are sending Vine – the six-second, looping videos that made so many people famous and so many things viral – into hospice care.

The social media service that helped usher in an era of Instagram videos, SnapChat and FaceBook live will not be a thing for much longer.

And that’s a shame.

Because there really was nothing better than a well-executed vine.

In remembrance, we are offering up the most memorable college basketball vines for your viewing pleasure (if we’ve missed any, leave a link in the comments or share it with us @CBTonNBC):

Kris Jenkins winning a title

Tony Parker kicking game at Allie LaForce

A quadruple ball-screen

Marshall Henderson is confused

That time Derrick Marks’ legs didn’t work like they used to before


The Wall of Distraction getting it done

Bill Self breaking his own watch

Dyshawn Pierre getting pantsed

How is this possible?

You may never see a better dunk than this

Tom Crean doing Tom Crean things

Thad Matta being thrilled to see Tom Crean

Speaking of Coach Matta, what’s he been on, Amir?

Sterling Brown knew this shot was good

I still have no idea what Stephen Zimmerman is doing here

He mad

That time Jamal Murray murdered his teammate

That time Willie Cauley-Stein murdered a defender

That other time Willie Cauley-Stein murdered a defender

Georges Niang blowing a kiss to the Iowa student section

And not everyone likes him for it

That time Jarmal Reid tripped a ref

A world class flop from Armani Moore


Motor-Boatright Me

Florida walk-on Jacob Kurtz tipping in a buzzer-beater for … Florida State?