Best Bets: Previewing the Champions Classic

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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.

North Carolina transfer Caleb Love commits to Arizona

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Caleb Love is now headed to Arizona.

The North Carolina transfer tweeted, less than a month after decommitting from Michigan, that he will play next season with the Wildcats.

“Caleb is a tremendously talented guard who has significant experience playing college basketball at a high level,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said in a statement. “We look forward to helping Caleb grow his game at Arizona. And as we near the completion of the roster for the upcoming season, we feel great about how everything has come together. Now it’s time for the real work to start.”

A 6-foot-4 guard, Love averaged 14.6 points and 3.3 assists in three seasons at North Carolina. He averaged 17.6 points in seven NCAA Tournament games, helping lead the Tar Heels to the 2022 national championship game.

Love entered the transfer portal after leading North Carolina with 73 3-pointers as a junior and initially committed to Michigan. He decommitted from the Wolverines earlier this month, reportedly due to an admissions issue involving academic credits.

Love narrowed his transfer targets to three schools before choosing to play at Arizona over Gonzaga and Texas.

Love will likely start on a team that will have dynamic perimeter players, including Pelle Larsson, Kylan Boswell and Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley.

Biden celebrates LSU women’s and UConn men’s basketball teams at separate White House events


WASHINGTON – All of the past drama and sore feelings associated with Louisiana State’s invitation to the White House were seemingly forgotten or set aside Friday as President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the championship women’s basketball team to the mansion with smiles, hugs and lavish praise all around.

The visit had once appeared in jeopardy after Jill Biden suggested that the losing Iowa team be invited, too. But none of that was mentioned as both Bidens heralded the players for their performance and the way they have helped advance women’s sports.

“Folks, we witnessed history,” the president said. “In this team, we saw hope, we saw pride and we saw purpose. It matters.”

The ceremony was halted for about 10 minutes after forward Sa’Myah Smith appeared to collapse as she and her teammates stood behind Biden. A wheelchair was brought in and coach Kim Mulkey assured the audience that Smith was fine.

LSU said in a statement that Smith felt overheated, nauseous and thought she might faint. She was evaluated by LSU and White House medical staff and was later able to rejoin the team. “She is feeling well, in good spirits, and will undergo further evaluation once back in Baton Rouge,” the LSU statement said.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, Biden said, more than half of all college students are women, and there are now 10 times more female athletes in college and high school. He said most sports stories are still about men, and that that needs to change.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs and activities.

“Folks, we need to support women sports, not just during the championship run but during the entire year,” President Biden said.

After the Tigers beat Iowa for the NCAA title in April in a game the first lady attended, she caused an uproar by suggesting that the Hawkeyes also come to the White House.

LSU star Angel Reese called the idea “A JOKE” and said she would prefer to visit with former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, instead. The LSU team largely is Black, while Iowa’s top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.

Nothing came of Jill Biden’s idea and the White House only invited the Tigers. Reese ultimately said she would not skip the White House visit. She and co-captain Emily Ward presented team jerseys bearing the number “46” to Biden and the first lady. Hugs were exchanged.

Jill Biden also lavished praise on the team, saying the players showed “what it means to be a champion.”

“In this room, I see the absolute best of the best,” she said, adding that watching them play was “pure magic.”

“Every basket was pure joy and I kept thinking about how far women’s sports have come,” the first lady added, noting that she grew up before Title IX was passed. “We’ve made so much progress and we still have so much more work to do.”

The president added that “the way in which women’s sports has come along is just incredible. It’s really neat to see, since I’ve got four granddaughters.”

After Smith was helped to a wheelchair, Mulkey told the audience the player was OK.

“As you can see, we leave our mark where we go,” Mulkey joked. “Sa’Myah is fine. She’s kind of, right now, embarrassed.”

A few members of Congress and Biden aides past and present with Louisiana roots dropped what they were doing to attend the East Room event, including White House budget director Shalanda Young. Young is in the thick of negotiations with House Republicans to reach a deal by the middle of next week to stave off what would be a globally calamitous U.S. financial default if the U.S. can no longer borrow the money it needs to pay its bills.

The president, who wore a necktie in the shade of LSU’s purple, said Young, who grew up in Baton Rouge, told him, “I’m leaving the talks to be here.” Rep. Garret Graves, one of the House GOP negotiators, also attended.

Biden closed sports Friday by changing to a blue tie and welcoming the UConn’s men’s championship team for its own celebration. The Huskies won their fifth national title by defeating San Diego State, 76-59, in April.

“Congratulations to the whole UConn nation,” he said.

Marquette’s Prosper says he will stay in draft rather than returning to school

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MILWAUKEE — Olivier-Maxence Prosper announced he is keeping his name under NBA draft consideration rather than returning to Marquette.

The 6-foot-8 forward announced his decision.

“Thank you Marquette nation, my coaches, my teammates and support staff for embracing me from day one,” Prosper said in an Instagram post. “My time at Marquette has been incredible. With that being said, I will remain in the 2023 NBA Draft. I’m excited for what comes next. On to the next chapter…”

Prosper had announced last month he was entering the draft. He still could have returned to school and maintained his college eligibility by withdrawing from the draft by May 31. Prosper’s announcement indicates he instead is going ahead with his plans to turn pro.

Prosper averaged 12.5 points and 4.7 rebounds last season while helping Marquette go 29-7 and win the Big East’s regular-season and tournament titles. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

He played two seasons at Marquette after transferring from Clemson, where he spent one season.

Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. returning for last season of eligibility

kansas mccullar
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Kevin McCullar Jr. said that he will return to Kansas for his final year of eligibility, likely rounding out a roster that could make the Jayhawks the preseason No. 1 next season.

McCullar transferred from Texas Tech to Kansas for last season, when he started 33 of 34 games and averaged 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds. He was also among the nation’s leaders in steals, and along with being selected to the Big 12’s all-defensive team, the 6-foot-6 forward was a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award.

“To be able to play in front of the best fans in the country; to play for the best coach in the nation, I truly believe we have the pieces to hang another banner in the Phog,” McCullar said in announcing his return.

Along with McCullar, the Jayhawks return starters Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams from a team that went 28–8, won the Big 12 regular-season title and was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Arkansas in the second round.

Perhaps more importantly, the Jayhawks landed Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, widely considered the best player in the portal, to anchor a lineup that was missing a true big man. They also grabbed former five-star prospect Arterio Morris, who left Texas, and Towson’s Nick Timberlake, who emerged last season as one of the best 3-point shooters in the country.

The Jayhawks also have an elite recruiting class arriving that is headlined by five-star recruit Elmarko Jackson.

McCullar declared for the draft but, after getting feedback from scouts, decided to return. He was a redshirt senior last season, but he has another year of eligibility because part of his career was played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a big day for Kansas basketball,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “Kevin is not only a terrific player but a terrific teammate. He fit in so well in year one and we’re excited about what he’ll do with our program from a leadership standpoint.”

Clemson leading scorer Hall withdraws from NBA draft, returns to Tigers

clemson pj hall
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CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson leading scorer PJ Hall is returning to college after withdrawing from the NBA draft on Thursday.

The 6-foot-10 forward took part in the NBA combine and posted his decision to put off the pros on social media.

Hall led the Tigers with 15.3 points per game this past season. He also led the Tigers with 37 blocks, along with 5.7 rebounds. Hall helped Clemson finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference while posting a program-record 14 league wins.

Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Hall gained experience from going through the NBA’s combine that will help the team next season. “I’m counting on him and others to help lead a very talented group,” he said.

Hall was named to the all-ACC third team last season as the Tigers went 23-10.