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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.

Annual doubleheader featuring state of Iowa’s four schools ending after 2018

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One of college basketball’s distinctive events is coming to a close after this season.

The Hy-Vee Classic, formerly the Big Four Classic, which has put the state of Iowa’s four Division I programs under one roof for a doubleheader each season since 2012 will have its last edition this December with the University of Iowa electing to exercise its option to pull out of the event with the Big Ten’s move to 20 conference games.

“The addition of two conference games is good for our fans, the Big Ten Conference and our strength of schedule,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said in a statement, “but unfortunately it created some scheduling challenges that impacts this event.”

The event was unique as it pit the state’s two Power 5 institutions – Iowa and Iowa State – against its two Missouri Valley Conference programs – Northern Iowa and Drake – on a rotating basis each season in the state capital of Des Moines. One year Iowa State would play Drake while Iowa would face Northern Iowa with the following year featuring Iowa State vs. Northern Iowa and Iowa vs. Drake. And so on and so forth for the last six years and ending after one last go-round this December.

The event was a sort of compromise to keep the intrastate series alive after years of both the Hawkeyes and Cyclones playing home-and-homes with Drake and Northern Iowa most years, putting them on the road in hostile MVC arenas.

That went away in 2012 and doesn’t appear to be likely to return with the dissolution of the yearly doubleheader.

“Although we would certainly welcome continuing to play games against UNI or Drake in the future,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said in a statement, “our ability to do that will most likely depend on each of their institution’s willingness to play games in Hilton Coliseum.”

Needless to say, Drake and UNI were not pleased with Iowa’s decision to force the end of the event.

“What has made our state unique on the college basketball landscape was the willingness and cooperation between the state’s four Division I universities to play each other on a regular basis,” Drake athletic director Brian Hardin said in a statement. “I understand the position that Iowa and Iowa State believe they are in. However, it is a sad day for passionate basketball fans of all four programs who have enjoyed nearly a century of history and rivalries between these four schools that were played in various great venues in our state.”

When the event was initially announced, it always felt like it was intended to act as a wind-down for Iowa and Iowa State – who will continue to face each other in on-campus games every year –  of the mid-major games that were popular with fans but not always with Hawkeyes and Cyclones coaches. Given the option, few Power 5 coaches are going to be excited about facing a lower-tier in-state rival every year anywhere other than its home floor.

Still, it’s a major loss for a unique situation in a small-population state that is not home to professional sports, but four Division I men’s hoops programs. College athletics is the passion in Iowa, and depriving the state’s fans of what were – if not national marquee – fun and interesting matchups that carry with them pride and bragging rights is a step in the wrong direction.

Ultimately, these games are likely going to be replaced on the schedules for the Cyclones and Hawkeyes with low-major opponents that won’t move the needle either at the gate or on their NCAA tournament resumes. Instead of an innovative event that against a co-worker’s or neighbor’s alma mater, Iowa and Iowa State fans can say hello to a steady diet of games against Bryant, Campbell and Maryland Eastern Shore while Drake and UNI get relegated to even more pronounced second-class status.

The move isn’t surprising, but it is disappointing.

High-scoring White ready for shot at UNC point guard role

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WILSON, N.C. (AP) — No one questions whether Coby White is good enough to help North Carolina immediately as a freshman.

Rather, the pressing question as White heads to campus this week is this: can the instate McDonald’s All-American who scored more points than any high school player in state history help the Tar Heels replace departed point guard Joel Berry II?

“I want to play. Who doesn’t want to play?” White said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But I know it’s going to take a lot to learn the offense and defense of North Carolina. … I feel like I’m a quick learner and I have a high IQ for the game. Basketball is just reads to me. I think I always make the correct read.

“It’s going to be hard but I feel like it’s going to be a quick adjustment for me.”

The 6-foot-4 White is ranked as the nation’s No. 23 recruit by 247sports, joining McDonald’s game MVP Nassir White (a 6-7 small forward ranked third nationally) and four-star 6-8 guard Rechon “Leaky” Black.

The trio joins a team that returns three starters — including AP third-team All-American Luke Maye — but must replace Berry and swingman Theo Pinson, fixtures from a 2017 NCAA title run.

Berry’s absence could be the biggest void. He was a Final Four most outstanding player, floor leader and won’t-back-down competitor.

Rising junior Seventh Woods has struggled with injuries and inconsistency as Berry’s possible successor, while freshman Jalek Felton withdrew from school after being suspended at midseason by the university for an unspecified reason.

That leaves an opening for White, a scoring point guard with more than 3,500 career points for Greenfield School in Wilson before the school retired his jersey.

“Will he have to score 31 at Carolina next year? Absolutely not,” Greenfield coach Rob Salter said. “But when the opportunity is there for him to score, he can do it, and he can do it pretty naturally.”

UNC coach Roy Williams began recruiting White as a point guard and an “instinctive passer.” Of course, he’s not overlooking White’s scoring punch, either.

“If you’re the leading scorer in North Carolina history, it means you shot a hell of a lot,” Williams quipped. “He did, but he makes a bunch of them, too. … The one thing that will have to become more important to him is his field-goal percentage.

“But if he didn’t get 30 or 40 or whatever, they had a difficult time beating a good team. So if I was coaching him (in high school), I’d say, ‘If it feels like leather, shoot it.'”

To prepare for college basketball, White said he has worked to get stronger and is up to about 190 pounds. He’s honing off-ball skills to play on the wing, too.

His mother, Bonita, said it’s merely the latest example of how her son has always been “wired to work.” She pointed to his freshman year when he’d return from basketball workouts at Greenfield and then head to the YMCA near their Goldsboro home.

“I was like, ‘You just got home, why do you want to go to the Y?'” she said. “He said, ‘The ball never stops.’ That’s where I saw it became very, very serious for him. It became a goal, even as a kid at that age who in his mind knew that the only way he would get better is to continue to work. And that’s what he did.”

White is fresh off helping the United States claim the FIBA Americas under-18 championship Saturday night in Canada. By week’s end, he’ll be in Chapel Hill to begin summer classes and start prepping for an oncourt opportunity.

“I’m probably going to be more nervous about just going to school because I’ve always been (at Greenfield) and it’s a little school,” White said.

“But basketball, I’ve been playing basketball since I was 5. I’m not really nervous because it’s what I do. I practice it every day. I put 100 percent into it so I don’t see why I should be nervous about it.”

South Carolina’s Martin understands Bowen’s choice to leave

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s Frank Martin understood all along he might never get to coach Brian Bowen in a game and is just happy the 6-foot-7 forward whose name is part of the federal corruption case in college basketball had the chance to spend a few months with the Gamecocks.

Bowen gave up his college career to turn pro last month when the NCAA informed South Carolina he would miss at least all of next season — his second full year on the bench — because of his alleged involvement in the scandal.

“Am I surprised? No. I’m realistic enough to understand when we took him that this was a possibility,” Martin said. “Was I disappointed? Yes.”

Bowen, from Saginaw, Michigan, transferred to South Carolina following his suspension from Louisville amid the federal probe after news of an alleged payment involving the Cardinals and his father to get him to join that school. Bowen could not play for the Gamecocks until at least the middle of December next season because of NCAA transfer rules.

The governing body told the school the penalty for Bowen would at least include the rest of the next year, something Martin knew meant Bowen had little option other than to turn pro.

“The NCAA kind of pigeon-holed him into only one choice,” Martin said.

Martin said did not want to dissect the NCAA’s decision, saying he accepted it and worked with Bowen and his family on his future. Bowen has since withdrawn from this month’s NBA draft. Martin said he’ll play in a developmental league or play outside the country to preserve his eligibility for next year’s draft.

South Carolina brought in Bowen last January despite his involvement with the college corruption scandal. It was not the coaches only ties to the ongoing investigation. One of Martin’s former staff members, ex-Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, was arrested by federal authorities. Documents from the investigation showed former Gamecocks point guard PJ Dozier received $6,115 from the ASM Sports Agency while in school.

Martin has said he knew nothing about Dozier or his family dealing with agents and that he has always run a clean program.

Bowen has insisted he’s had no involvement with Christian Dawkins, the would-be agent who federal prosecutors say brokered and facilitated payments to players during their recruitments in exchange for them hiring him when they turned pro.

Martin is grateful for the time he’s had with Bowen, who had a 3.5 GPA this semester and was a model teammate who’d spend hours by himself in the gym shooting jumpers. He was also committed to South Carolina’s future, the coach said, which he proved after his time at the NBA draft combine last month.

Martin said Bowen spent six days working out at the combine and another five after that visiting NBA teams for workouts. When Bowen finally returned to Columbia, he drove to a restaurant where Gamecocks coaches were entertaining a recruit.

“He’s a real good kid,” Martin said.

The coach also believes he is a future NBA player, though obviously Bowen needs to improve areas of his game. Martin recalled an informal workout with past South Carolina stars including Los Angeles Clippers guard Sindarius Thornwell and Dozier, who spent much of this season in the G-League with the Oklahoma City Blue.

“I wasn’t sure Brian wasn’t the best player on the court when I walked out of there,” Martin said.

Bowen also made other South Carolina players better at practices. Martin cited an early January slump — the so-called “freshman wall” many newcomers hit — by first-year forward Justin Minaya. When Bowen arrived for practices, he was matched up most of the time against the 6-5 Minaya.

“Justin had no choice but to engage in that matchup with Brian because Brian’s such a talented kid,” Martin said.

As a result, Martin said Minaya recovered his form and was among the Gamecocks most consistent players in February and March.

“I know what I walked into. I knew the situation,” Martin said. “Do I regret it? Not one bit because of the person he is.”

North Carolina gets commitment from four-star 2020 forward

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North Carolina has its first piece in its 2020 recruiting class.

Day’Ron Sharpe, a 6-foot-9 forward, committed to the Tar Heels on Sunday, according to multiple reports.

The Winterville, N.C. native picked Roy Williams’ in-state program over offers from Florida, Georgetown and Virginia, among others, after a second visit to Chapel Hill recently.

“We weren’t expecting it, and it kind of came out of the blue,” his father, Derrick Sharpe, told 247 Sports about the commitment. “He told coach Williams and coach was just really excited about it.”

Sharpe averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game during his sophomore season.

“He’s a very multi-talented player,” Dwayne West, executive director of the Garner Road Bulldogs told the Raleigh News & Observer. “He does several things very well at a high rate. He can obviously score the ball around the basket, has a solid shot and is actually a very good playmaker. Handles the ball very well.”

Sharpe is a four-star, consensus top-75 player in the 2020 class. Williams also has one commit in the 2019 class, top-50 point guard Jeremiah Francis, who, like Sharpe, committed to the Tar Heels the summer before his junior season.

Former Western Michigan basketball player cleared of murder

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — A jury has acquitted a former Western Michigan basketball player of murder in the shooting death of a fellow student but convicted him of armed robbery and a weapons charge.

The Kalamazoo County jury deliberated two days before returning the verdict for Joeviair Kennedy. He faces a possible life sentence when he’s sentenced July 16.

Nineteen-year-old Jacob Jones was killed near the campus on Dec. 8, 2016.

Co-defendant Jordan Waire of Muskegon was convicted last month of felony murder, armed robbery and weapons charges.

Prosecutors said it was Waire who shot Jones. Kennedy has said they took marijuana and about $25.

Kennedy’s attorney, Eusebio Solis, said his client agreed to the robbery but not the killing.

Kennedy was arrested in 2016 at the start of his second basketball season.

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