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Champions Classic Preview: Breaking down Duke-Michigan State and Kansas-Kentucky

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We’re five days into college basketball season and it’s finally about to start.

After a long weekend that gave us nothing but blowouts and Pitt losing and saw just a single ranked team lose a game – to a team that was also ranked – we get what is not only the best night of hoops to date but what may end up being the best night of college basketball this season.

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State

No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 5 Kentucky

Buckle up.

DUKE vs. MICHIGAN STATE, 7:00 p.m.

BATTLE OF THE BIGS

I cannot wait to see these two front lines square off. Let’s start with Duke’s, where Marvin Bagley III has lived up to the immense hype that he entered the season with. Through two games, he’s averaging 24.5 points and 10 boards, scoring in the post and pulling bigs away from the rim and doing things that 6-foot-11 people are not supposed to be able to do. Against Utah Valley on Saturday night, Bagley jumped a passing lane to make a steal, took one dribble past half court and euro-stepped through two defenders to finish a finger-roll.

He’s a 6-foot-11 19 year-old!

But what makes me so excited about Duke’s big guys is just how good Wendell Carter actually is. Carter isn’t flashy. He doesn’t come with the level of hype that guys like Bagley and Michael Porter Jr. and Deandre Ayton have. He’s probably never going to be a franchise-changing player in the NBA, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an NBA player. He, without question, is. He understands how to play. He is a sensational passer as a big. He can face-up and score. He can score on the block. He’s a good enough shot-blocker that he’s not a liability defensively. The high-low actions he and Bagley can run are so much fun to watch.

He’ll be flanked up front by Jaren Jackson and NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year Miles Bridges. Jackson is an intriguing talent, a long and athletic 6-foot-11 four-man that can space the floor. He’s not quite on the same level as the Bagleys and Carters of the world, but he’s a lottery pick in his own right. Depth may end up being the difference-maker for the Spartans – they legitimately have seven big men that could start in the Big Ten – but, to me, the key is going to end up being …

… WHO GUARDS MILES BRIDGES?

To put it simply, there aren’t very many people in college basketball that can matchup with Bridges. He’s a 6-foot-7 athletic freak that played the four last season and will be at the three this year. He can over power someone like Grayson Allen or Gary Trent Jr. in the paint, but lining up, say, Bagley on him is probably not the best idea. Bridges is probably too quick for Bagley to guard on the perimeter, and I’m not sure it’s worth risking the foul trouble to what may be the most irreplaceable player on the Duke roster.

If I was Coach K, I would go man and rotate through wings on Bridges. Trent, Allen, Alex O’Connell, Jordan Tucker. Keep running fresh legs at him and make him work for the buckets that he’s going to get. They’re coming. A 20-point, 10-board, three-assist night is the norm for Bridges, but is Duke makes those points hard to come by – if they make him work hard enough that his legs are gone at the other end – they can still come out ahead.

THERE’S ALSO A BATTLE OF THE LITTLE GUYS

Duke and Michigan State both had the same question mark entering the season: Point guard play. Trevon Duval is not necessarily the kind of point guard that the Blue Devils needed this year, while Cassius Winston is a talented passer that struggled with turnovers as a freshman. Duval has been terrific through two games – 11.5 points, 10 assists and just a single turnover in two games – but he’s also done much of his damage in transition, where we knew he would be great.

Frankly, I think where Duval can win this game for Duke will be on the defensive end of the floor. He’s a freak athlete with all the tools you want in a point guard, and it’s fair to say that he and Winston have very different athletic profiles. If Duval can hound Winston, if he makes it hard for Michigan State to get into their offense, it takes away some of the threat of their bigs.

X-FACTOR

I’m tempted to go with depth here, as Duke lacks it and Michigan State has it in spades, but I really think that the Grayson Allen-Josh Langford matchup will be important. Both are talented. Both struggled with consistency and injuries last season. Both have been impressive early on this season. I’ll give the early edge to Allen – we’ve seen him do it at this level already – but this could be a coming-out party for Langford.

PREDICTION

This is tough, but I think Duke leaves Chicago with a win which means that taking Duke (-2) would make sense. Trevon Duval, in theory, should be able to lock up Cassius Winston, while I think that the Bagley-Carter pairing will be able to get the best of Jackson and Ward.

That said, I have no confidence in that pick. I do, however, have all the confidence in He world that this will be a thriller either way.

KANSAS vs. KENTUCKY, 9:30 p.m.

SMALL-BALL TAKES ON THE MONSTARS

I think I had more fun watching Kansas play in their opener than any other team this weekend. Full disclosure: I love the small-ball movement. I love seeing teams space the floor with playmakers, attack opponents off the dribble and use the threat of the three-ball to create mismatches and close-outs.

That is precisely how Kansas is going to have to play this season, as the entirety of their front line is this: sophomore Udoka Azubuike, freshman Billy Preston, sophomore Mitch Lightfoot. Against Tennessee State in the opener, the Jayhawks had lineups where 6-foot-4 Lagerald Vick played the four and 6-foot-5 Marcus Garrett was the second-biggest player on the floor.

Kentucky is the polar opposite. They have so much quality size on their roster that Kevin Knox, a potential first round pick and the perfect player to slot into a small-ball four role at the college level, is going to spend the entire season playing as a three. Their starting lineup on Friday night against Utah Valley featured five players taller that Garrett. The smallest guy on the floor was Hamidou Diallo, a 6-foot-5 off-guard with a 7-foot wingspan, while 6-foot-6 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander handled the point guard duties.

I fully expect Kansas to try and match that size early. So long as Preston has found a way to make curfew, I think he’ll start at the four next to Azubuike, but I don’t think that will hold. Bill Self had so much success last season playing small – and has so many talented perimeter players on his roster – that he’ll dare Kentucky to come out and guard them.

YOUTH TAKES ON THE OLD GUYS

The Wildcats have used two different starting lineups in their two games this season, and both of those lineups featured all freshmen. The only non-freshman on their that is seeing minutes is Wenyen Gabriel, and he played 14 minutes per game last season. That, more than anything, is the reason they struggled to knock off Utah Valley, whom they trailed by 12 early in the second half, and Vermont, who had a shot to tie the game on with less than five seconds left in the game.

It’s a learning process for Kentucky.

We all know this by now.

And class will be in session on Tuesday night, as the Jayhawks’ best lineup features two seniors, a junior, a redshirt sophomore and a sophomore. Hell, Preston is even 20 years old already. Where I think this manifests itself is on the offensive end for Kentucky, where their lack of shooting and question marks at the point guard spot made things quite difficult in the opener on Friday.

SO LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT KENTUCKY DEFENSE

It was atrocious in the second half against Vermont. The Wildcats had no idea how to defend Vermont’s high-ball screens, and Trae Bell-Haynes – who is a very good player – sliced them up for the entirety of the second 20 minutes. If they can’t stop Bell-Haynes, what is Kentucky going to do against Devonte’ Graham and Malik Newman?

That said, Kentucky’s defense won their opener for them. They switched from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone, and suddenly the length and athleticism on the roster took over. They got some steals, they got some easy buckets in transition and suddenly they were awake, which is why …

X-FACTOR

… I think that zone will be the determining factor on Tuesday night. The idea that you can’t zone a three-point shooting team is a fallacy; in fact, if you play the 2-3 zone the right way and move quick enough, it’s sometimes easier to keep opponents from getting clean looks at a three, especially with the length Kentucky has. Kansas has three-point shooters and a roster that makes sense playing small-ball. Kentucky is enormous, and having success playing a 2-3 zone mitigates some of the quickness advantage Kansas has on the perimeter.

If the Wildcats don’t suffer defensively, when they have, say, P.J. Washington at the four while Svi Mykhailiuk is his counterpart, then that means that Kansas will have Svi guarding Washington in the post. The entire state of Kansas shuddered in fear at that last sentence.

PREDICTION: I think that this ends up being a wake-up call for the Wildcats, not that they really need it after the way their season started. I don’t think this will be as bad as the beating that Kentucky put on Kansas in 2015, the year that Cliff Alexander was a Jayhawk and the Wildcats started the season 38-0, but I don’t think that Kentucky will be in it down the stretch.

Kansas covers the points – it opened at (-2) and has since moved to (-4.5) in some places – whatever they end up being.

VIDEO: Mike Brey celebrates Maui win shirtless

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Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey celebrated his team’s win in the Maui Invitational by going shirtless in the team locker room:

This came after Brey spent the entire tournament coaching in shorts and a t-shirt:

Mike Brey (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

I think it’s safe to say Brey enjoyed himself on the islands.

No. 13 Notre Dame lands come-from-behind win to beat No. 6 Wichita State in Maui

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Notre Dame led twice during Wednesday night’s Maui Invitational title game.

At 4-2, and, after Martinas Geben hit the second of two free throws with 2.3 seconds left, at 67-66.

That score would end up being the final, as the 13th-ranked Irish erased a 14-point second half deficit to knock off No. 6 Wichita State and bring home that Maui trophy.

Bonzie Colson led the way with 25 points and 11 boards while Matt Farrell chipped in with 15 points, four assists, four boards and three steals. Geben chipped in with 12 points, including those two free throws that served as the eventual game-winners.

Beyond the simple fact that they did it against one of the best teams in the country, what makes this comeback so impressive is that the Irish didn’t rely on a flurry of threes to change the course of the game. This comeback came through grit, toughness defensively and, if we’re being honest, a little bit of luck.

With less than 20 seconds left on the clock and the Irish down by three points, Colson airballed a pretty good look at a three from the top of the key. On the ensuing inbounds, Farrell stole the ball and happened to find Colson under the rim for a layup. The lead was cut to one, and Wichita State proceeded to miss the front end of a one-and-one after being fouled.

The ball once again ended up underneath Notre Dame’s basket, but this time it was the Irish ball, and after a gorgeous inbounds play, Geben headed to the line for two shots. The first shots somehow managed to go down after bouncing off the back of the rim, the backboard and the front of the rim twice.

And with that, Notre Dame would get off of the islands with another quality win for their résumé and a title to their name.

No. 8 Kentucky finally has it easy against Fort Wayne, 86-67

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Nick Richards had career highs of 25 points and 15 rebounds, and 70 percent first-half shooting propelled No. 8 Kentucky to an 86-67 rout of Fort Wayne on Wednesday night.

Kentucky’s 19-of-27 shooting before halftime countered the Mastodons’ eight 3-pointers that kept them close for a while. Once Fort Wayne started missing, it couldn’t match the length or speed of the young Wildcats (5-1), who eventually led 78-48 with 6:50 remaining on the way to their most decisive win this season.

Richards thrived in both halves and on both ends, making 9 of 10 from the field and all seven free throws for his first career double-double. The 6-foot-11 freshman’s previous highs were 10 points against Utah Valley and nine rebounds against Kansas last week.

Quade Green, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander each added 11 points as Kentucky shot a season-best 33 of 55 (60 percent) and dominated the rebounding 44-21.

Junior guard John Konchar had 19 points and Bryson Scott 18 for Fort Wayne (3-2), who had won three in a row before losing on 40 percent shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Fort Wayne: A year after upsetting Indiana, the Mastodons led Kentucky 37-36 with 3:51 left in the first half behind 8-of-22 shooting from long range. They went cold from outside and elsewhere after that and the Wildcats pounced to lead at the break and stretch the advantage to 30 points in the second half. The Mastodons’ 12 3-pointers were their third-highest total this season.

Kentucky: Something had to give after all those tense performances and the Wildcats thrived because of their size and best shooting effort this season. Richards couldn’t be stopped on either end, and teammates seemed in sync for the first time. Sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel came up just short of a double-double with 10 rebounds and nine points.

UP NEXT

Kentucky hosts Illinois-Chicago on Sunday to wrap up the Rupp Classic before getting a few days off.

Fort Wayne visits East Tennessee State on Saturday. ETSU lost 78-31 to Kentucky last Friday.

VIDEO: Providence beats Belmont on Kyron Cartwright’s buzzer-beating three

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We got the first wild buzzer-beater of the college basketball season on Wednesday night, as Kyron Cartwright answered a Belmont bucket with 3.7 seconds left by going 94-feet to hit a leaning three at the buzzer:

Providence won the game 65-63.

Cartwright finished with 17 points in the win.

Four Takeaways from N.C. State’s upset win over No. 2 Arizona

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Five games into the Kevin Keatts era and N.C. State already has themselves a signature win.

The Wolfpack upset No. 2 Arizona in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, 90-84, sending Sean Miller home without reaching the Final Four once again. Allerik Freeman led the way with 24 points, while Braxton Beverly chipped in with 20 points off the bench and the combination of Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven combined for 21 points and 17 boards.

This wasn’t a fluky win, either.

N.C. State had control throughout. They were up 15-6 before Arizona woke up, they didn’t trail in the first half and they were the ones that made the Wildcats chase them down in the second half. It was quite impressive, as Keatts had this group playing hard and pressing for 40 minutes. It’s been a while since N.C. State fans can say that they’ve seen that.

Here are three things to takeaway from that win.

1. Arizona is going to have some things to figure out on the defensive end of the floor if they want to win a national title: Deandre Ayton is a man amongst boys. In his first college basketball game against competition that actually deserved to be on the same floor as him, Ayton finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds, a performance that makes me so damn excited to see just how good Marvin Bagley III, Miles Bridges and players of that ilk are if Ayton does not end up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Trier struggled in the first half, but he still managed to put together a 27-point performance, with 24 of those 27 coming in the second half. They put up 84 points. That wasn’t the issue.

The 90 points they allowed was.

Even more concerning was the fact that the Wolfpack scored those 90 points on just 73 possessions. The bottom-line is this: That’s not good enough, not when N.C. State is hardly a contender for the Final Four, let alone a national title challenger.

2. Kevin Keatts is making the most of the talent Mark Gottfried squandered: I’m not sure quite how good the Wolfpack actually are. I don’t think it’s possible to tell this early, even after a win over a team like Arizona. But what is undeniable is the simple fact that this N.C. State team plays are and with most passion and intensity than any Mark Gottfried team did.

They look like they are trying. They look like they care. And frankly, that often matters more than the simple stock-piling of talent. There’s no way anyone could look at this N.C. State roster and think that it has more talent on it than, say, a team with Dennis Smith Jr. or a team with T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack may not have a future lottery pick on this roster. But they do have guys that play their tails off, that play as if they have a point to prove and that play as if they are being coached.

It makes you wonder what could have been had Keatts been in Raleigh last season.

3. Braxton Beverly getting ruled eligible is going to be a big deal for N.C. State: Earlier this fall, Braxton Beverly was one of the biggest stories in college basketball, believe it or not. He had transferred to N.C. State from Ohio State after enrolling in summer courses prior to Thad Matta’s firing. He was ruled ineligible for this season with the Wolfpack, and it turned into the cause celebre for college basketball media members looking to circle the wagons and bash the NCAA.

It took longer than it should have, but Beverly was eventually cleared by the NCAA. He’s eligible to play this season, and he just so happens to be the point guy on the N.C. State press and one of their best shooters. He put up 20 points on the No. 2 team in America. I think he’s going to be relevant this season.

4. Arizona’s point guard issues rose to the forefront: When the Wildcats made their push in the second half, they did it on the strength of hustle plays and transition buckets. Jumping passing lanes and going coast-to-coast. Beating N.C. State’s press and getting a layup. Points that came off of offensive rebounds. Where they struggled was with their half court execution. The question with this team entering the season was with the point guard play. Was Parker Jackson-Cartwright going to be good enough to carry this team to a title? I’m not sure we can truly say we got on answer on Wednesday – N.C. State’s pressure, which was ratcheted up by the fact that Arizona couldn’t get a stop, played more of a role than anything – but Jackson-Cartwright certainly did not put in the kind of performance that would make Arizona fans feel comfortable.