Duke and Kentucky made resounding opening statements in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night, and figure to have things slightly easier as they retake the floor on Friday. ESPN.com’s college basketball experts make their predictions for those games, and also expound on the surprises of tipoff week in college basketball
Jump to score predictions for the weekend’s top games
All four Champions Classic participants will be back in action this weekend. Give us one thing you learned on Tuesday about Duke, Kansas, Kentucky or Michigan State that you didn’t know heading into the opener.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I learned that Duke might lack the consistent offensive production we’ve come to expect with Mike Krzyzewski’s teams in the one-and-done era. While I think their defensive prowess will carry them into ACC contention, I’m not convinced they’ll possess the offensive burst for a deep run in March. It’s far too early to know for sure, but I’d be concerned about the scoring capabilities of any team that forces 28 turnovers and wins a two-point game.
Duke made just 37.5% of its shots inside the arc against Kansas. The Blue Devils played great defense, which should be the strength of this year’s squad, especially on the perimeter with Tre Jones. But the offense must grow in the coming weeks and months to enter January as a threat in the ACC.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: The team I’ve changed my opinion on the most is Kansas. I thought the Jayhawks were the No. 2 team in the country and a legitimate national title contender. Now, I think they’re a long way from that. I do think a return from injury for Iowa transfer Isaiah Moss will provide a major boost, but the Jayhawks will still struggle with ballhandling and shot-creation in the half-court. Devon Dotson is essentially the only consistent ball handler on the roster, and he turned it over six times against Duke. Some of that obviously had to do with the Blue Devils’ defense, but it’s certainly a concern moving forward.
The other thing with Kansas is the propensity for coach Bill Self to play two bigs together, which on Tuesday was Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack. For a team that doesn’t have a ton of guys who can create their own shots, shrinking the defense and crowding the floor doesn’t help.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: One thing I learned about Kentucky is that Tyrese Maxey is not only a blue-chip prospect, he’s also utterly fearless. Playing against the (then) No. 1 team in the country in Madison Square Garden, the freshman looked for all the world as if he’d been doing this for years and having fun in the process.
There will of course be ups and downs for Maxey this season after that outstanding debut, and we’ll have to see if he can distribute the ball as well as he can drive it and shoot it. Still, knowing that John Calipari has a freshman in the backcourt with this much potential does make me feel better about rather recklessly picking Kentucky, before the Champions Classic, to win the national title in 2020.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: Seeing Kentucky in person was enlightening in the sense that its team speed and athleticism is off the charts, particularly from the backcourt. Maxey was downright dominant and looked every bit like an All-American candidate, but it was the constant tempo as well that struck a chord. Ashton Hagans (SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year) and Kahlil Whitney are going to be a real problem, especially defensively, where they use their quickness to really cut off drives and coerce contested shots or turnovers.
What’s the one result that surprised you most over the season’s first couple of days, and do you think it was an anomaly or a sign of a deeper issue?
Medcalf: I know Syracuse only returns one starter from last year’s team but Jim Boeheim’s team could play its way onto the bubble. A 48-34 loss to Virginia at home in the season opener, however, was startling. Despite committing just nine turnovers against a rebuilt Virginia squad, Syracuse registered just 58 points per 100 possessions, a wild number. You can blame Virginia, which plays a challenging defensive style that would confound any team like the Orange that has a bunch of new faces. But the result might also highlight Syracuse’s limited pool of playmakers who can help them shake those offensive funks in the future.
Borzello: Alabama losing at home to Penn was the one that caught my eye. The Crimson Tide are a projected NCAA tournament team, with the return of Kira Lewis and John Petty in the backcourt, plenty of talent elsewhere on the roster and the hiring of Nate Oats. But then they went out and fell to Penn, which isn’t even the Ivy favorite.
I think there are signs of deeper issues there, even if I don’t suddenly think Alabama is a bad team. Oats has a lot of good guards on the roster, but there’s nothing proven or consistent up front. That has to change for the Crimson Tide to reach their ceiling, so someone will have to step up. Either that, or they get Jahvon Quinerly eligible and run five-guard lineups for 40 minutes. That would certainly be fun to watch.
Gasaway: It wasn’t a shock-the-world upset, but Florida State losing a nail-biter at Pitt did get my attention. The Seminoles were parked just outside the top 25, and there were preseason murmurs to the effect that Leonard Hamilton’s team was being overlooked in the ACC. Well, maybe not, at least not yet. FSU suffered from mediocrity on offense more or less across the board against the Panthers. Give Jeff Capel’s men full credit, they got the job done.
Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, the Noles are going to have to decide how they want to get the job done in terms of scoring. Points in the paint, perimeter shooting, crashing the offensive glass, taking exceptionally good care of the ball — any of the above can work, but not much of it was in evidence in the season’s first 40 minutes.
Schultz: The loss didn’t necessarily shock me, but I was surprised at how lean Michigan State’s roster is right now. I know Joshua Langford returns in January, but there is an awful not of pressure on Cassius Winston. Not to say he can’t handle it, because he can, but Sparty does not have anyone else to break down a defense and alleviate pressure from its All-American point guard. Tom Izzo is as good as it gets at extracting every last ounce of talent from his kids, but as things stand right now, his team is a bad Winston game away from catastrophe come tournament time.
Give us one upset pick for the weekend that is going to shock a large portion of the world but will not surprise you.
Gasaway: I’ll take UC Santa Barbara over UCLA in Westwood. The Gauchos are a better team than Long Beach State, and, as you might remember, the Beach very nearly knocked off the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday night. Mick Cronin’s men had trouble taking care of the ball in that game and, anyway, four of UCSB’s starters are juniors and seniors (though the best player might be sophomore Amadou Sow). Joe Pasternack’s club is going to earn bragging rights in this SoCal showdown.
Borzello: Give me Davidson over Auburn. I had both teams just on the outside of my preseason top 25, but I think Davidson might be a bit further along in its development. Auburn had to replace three starters and its sixth man from last season, and was more reliant on interior players than last season in its season-opening win over Georgia Southern.
Davidson has two of the best guards in the country in Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady, and returns all five starters from last season. The Wildcats won’t have a problem scoring — assuming they take care of the ball — and Auburn just isn’t as explosive offensively as last season. Davidson comes out of Friday night with a win that will hold weight on Selection Sunday.
Medcalf: I’ll go with Washington over Baylor in the Armed Forces Classic in Anchorage, Alaska (Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). As of Friday morning, Baylor was a five-point favorite. Scott Drew’s team should contend for the Big 12 title. But Mike Hopkins’ squad might be catching Baylor at the right time.
In the Bears’ season-opening win over Central Arkansas, Tristan Clark didn’t look like the Tristan Clark I’m sure we’ll see as his confidence grows following last year’s season-ending knee injury. Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart, a pair of projected lottery picks, are playing their first collegiate games. Expect some nerves but also a lot of energy. The duo could lead Washington to an early upset of a Baylor team that will continue to improve over the course of the season.
Schultz: Give me Washington, too. Having attended the Huskies’ first three practices of the season, two things stood out: They are very big and very talented. Stewart and McDaniels are both potential top-five picks and Kentucky transfer Quade Green (a former McDonald’s All-American) is a steadying force at the point. As much as I like the Bears, Washington is one of the few teams they will play that is more athletic and also long enough to counter the 2-3 and 1-1-3 zone looks.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, published as they become available, from Caesars Sportsbook)