It’s hard to think about college basketball with NCAA football and the NFL going strong, but it’s a potential Final Four preview Tuesday night in Chicago at the Champions Classic. The opening game features preseason No. 1 Kentucky against No. 2 Michigan State, followed by No. 4 Duke versus No. 5 Kansas, with both games on ESPN and having live betting at Bovada. It would be no surprise to see these four blue bloods in the national semifinals next April at AT&T Stadium outside Dallas.
Kentucky was the preseason title betting favorite last year but didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, finishing 21-12 and losing to Robert Morris in the NIT’s first round. However, Wildcat coach John Calipari has outdone himself in recruiting six high school All-Americans to join the squad as freshmen, led by No. 3 overall recruit Julius Randle, a power forward.
Last year’s Cats were done in by Nerlens Noel‘s season-ending injury in February — he’s now in the NBA — and the fact that there were no key players returning to help the freshman class. Calipari does welcome back two star returnees this season in power forward Alex Poythress and 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein. Kentucky is the 13-4 national championship favorite at Bovada. The last time the Wildcats were preseason No. 1 was in 1995-96 when they won it all under Rick Pitino, the coach of 2012-13 champion Louisville.
Michigan State, 9-1 favorites to cut down the nets in April, finished 27-9 playing in the ultra-tough Big Ten last year and reached the Sweet 16, losing to Duke. Coach Tom Izzo wasn’t able to convince center Derrick Nix not to leave early for the NBA, but Izzo did get two of his best players, guard Gary Harris — last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year — and big man Adreian Payne to return to East Lansing. No player who has stayed all four (or five) years under Izzo has failed to reach a Final Four, but that streak would end if Sparty doesn’t make it this season.
Kentucky-Michigan State will be the earliest No. 1 versus No. 2 game in NCAA history. It’s also the first 1-2 matchup since No. 2 Tennessee beat Calipari’s then-unbeaten No. 1 Memphis team on Feb. 24, 2008. Kentucky has won 18 of its past 19 games as the top-ranked team in the nation and will open around a five-point favorite.
The nightcap between Kansas (11-2) and Duke (12-1) features the top two freshman recruits in the nation: the Jayhawks’ Andrew Wiggins, who has been compared to a young LeBron James, and the Blue Devils’ Jabari Parker. Wiggins was voted a unanimous member of the Associated Press preseason All-America team. Former University of North Carolina standout Harrison Barnes took home those honors two years ago and is the only other freshman to earn preseason first-team All-America honors.
Wiggins may have to be as good as advertised, with Kansas losing all five starters from last season’s 31-6 team that won a ninth straight Big 12 title and lost in overtime to Michigan in the Sweet 16. Duke lost its three top scorers — Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly — off last season’s 30-6 squad that was pounded by Louisville in the Elite Eight. Coach Mike Krzyzewski welcomes back a very good backcourt in Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook along with transfer Rodney Hood. Duke will be a slight favorite.