Best Bets: Previewing the Champions Classic

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

No. 3 KANSAS vs. No. 4 DUKE, 7:00 p.m.
  • SPREAD: Kansas (-1)
  • TOTAL: 152.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kansas 76.75, Duke 75.75
  • KENPOM: Duke 78, Kansas 74

When this line opened, Duke was favored by 2.5 points. Since then, it has continued to move towards Kansas, and as of this posting the Jayhawks are favored by a point. I think that it will continue to move that direction; I make the line at Kansas (-3) and I would probably need six or seven points before I really considered betting on Duke.

The reasoning is pretty simple at its core: Duke is young and their veterans will be asked to play much bigger roles than they have ever played while Kansas could end up with their top seven scorers being returnees. Early in the season, I tend to bet on the teams with vets when they play against a team with a lot of newcomers. This qualifies.

But it’s more than just the fact that Duke is young and Kansas is not quite as young.

I’m on record saying that Udoka Azubuike is going to be one of the best and most unstoppable forces in college basketball this season. I called him the fourth-best player in the sport just last week. The reason I said that is because there is no better low post force in the country than the big fellas, and there is no coach in the country better at scheming ways to get his post players in a spot where they can turn and dunk than Bill Self.

And on Tuesday night, Azubuike will be going up against a Duke frontline that consists of freshman Vernon Carey, freshman Matthew Hurt and senior Javin DeLaurier. Neither Carey nor Hurt are known for their ability to defend. DeLaurier weighs a good 35 pounds less than Azubuike. He should be able to do anything he wants in the paint. The way to exploit a player like Azubuike is to force him to defend on the perimeter, either with a perimeter-oriented center – think Villanova’s Omari Spellman in the 2018 Final Four – or by putting him into ball-screen actions.

But Duke doesn’t really have the personnel for that. Carey is a low-post banger, DeLaurier is 1-for-10 from three in his college career and playing Hurt at the five might end up being a net-negative given the struggles he has guarding in the post.

And as much as I love Tre Jones, I need to see him prove that he can be a shooter before I believe that he is a shooter. Until then, I’m just going to assume that he will never need to be guarded beyond the three-point line.

PICK: Kansas (-1)

No. 1 MICHIGAN STATE  vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 9:30 p.m.

  • SPREAD: Michigan State (-3)
  • TOTAL: 139.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 71.25, Kentucky 68.25
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 72, Kentucky 70

This is a weird matchup.

On paper, it is precisely the kind of game where you want to bet on the team with the veterans, one of whom is a senior point guard, a returning first-team All-American and the best player in college basketball. For the uneducated, that would be Michigan State and Cassius Winston.

But when you look deeper at Michigan State, the team they have right now is not as deep or as experienced as you might imagine. As it stands, with Josh Langford out, just three of their healthy rotation pieces are upperclassmen, and one of those three – Kyle Ahrens – is banged up. They’re going to be counting on a promising and talented sophomore class to play major minutes and produce.

Whether it is Thomas Kithier or Marcus Bingham Jr. at the four, or Gabe Brown playing extended minutes on the wing, or one of Foster Loyer and Rocket Watts getting minutes in the backcourt, there are going to be quite a few guys asked to play new and expanded roles. That may take some time.

Now, the mitigating factor here is that Winston is awesome, that he makes everyone around him better, but if he does have a weakness, it is athletic guards that can force him into turning the ball over. It was not as much of an issue last season (Winston lit up Michigan and Zavier Simpson three times and put 20 points and 10 assists on Tre Jones and Duke in the Elite Eight) but he had nine turnovers in a loss at Illinois and struggled in the Final Four against Texas Tech. Kentucky’s backcourt of Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey has the kind of size, athleticism and defensive prowess that can give Winston some trouble.

Up front, you’d think that a Michigan State team that features Tillman and a bunch of young guys would be at a disadvantage against Kentucky, but with Nick Richards hurt, the Wildcats frontline is E.J. Montgomery, Nate Sestina and no one else. I actually think Tillman will be the best big man on the floor, and Kentucky being forced to play small may actually be sub-optimal – I think the Spartans will be at their best when they embrace Aaron Henry at the four.

So I don’t have conviction either way here.

I think I tend to lean towards the Spartans simply because I trust the team with the senior All-American at the point. But I don’t feel great about it, and if the money-line for Kentucky gets up towards (+150) or (+160), I would have a tough time staying away.

I also don’t feel great about the total. On the one hand, this has the makings of an ugly game. On the other hand, Tom Izzo likes to run as much as any coach, and I think that Kentucky’s optimal way to play is to pressure, try to force turnovers and get out in transition.

PICK: If I was forced to bet I would take Michigan State (-3), but I will personally be staying away.


No. 5 LOUISVILLE (-7) at MIAMI, 6:30 p.m.

Taking road favorites is not the way that I want to kick off the college basketball season. I love Louisville this year, but I think that Miami and Chris Lykes have the horses to keep this thing close. Throw in the fact that the Cardinals are dealing with injuries to two potentials starters, and I’ll personally be staying away. If forced to bet, I’d take Miami (+7).

No. 20 SAINT MARY’S (-3) vs. WISCONSIN, 9:00 p.m. (Sioux Falls)

It’s going to be a new era in Wisconsin, as the Badgers will be replacing All-American Ethan Happ. I think the Badges have some sneaky tournament potential this year, but I’m all in on the Gaels. They are a top 15 team in America and they have arguably the best point guard in the mid-major ranks in Jordan Ford. I like Saint Mary’s (-3), but I think the under is much more interesting. But the bet I like the most here is under 129.5. Greg Gard has never ranked higher than 331st in tempo. Randy Bennett has not ranked higher than 341st in tempo since 2014. This is going to be a slow, slow basketball game.