College hoops preview: No. 1 Duke, No. 2 MSU clash Tuesday at the UC
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Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has hit and missed with the one-and-done thing. The Blue Devils won the national title in 2015, with freshmen Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Grayson Allen outperforming veteran-laden Wisconsin in the final. Two years later — with an even more highly touted freshman class — Duke was out of the NCAA Tournament on the first weekend.
So what now? What else? Duke — on the strength of its biggest, best freshman class yet — is back at No. 1 in the national polls. But maybe not for long. The Blue Devils (2-0) face No. 2 Michigan State (6 p.m., ESPN) in a Tuesday-night Champions Classic doubleheader at the United Center that’s so compelling, No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 7 Kentucky (8:30 p.m., ESPN) isn’t even at the top of the marquee.
Don’t bother telling that to fans of the Jayhawks and Wildcats, of course. They’ll pack the UC like it’s the Alamodome in San Antonio, site of this season’s Final Four.
But back t — who were ranked among the top eight recruits in the nation by ESPN. Bagley instantly steps in as one of the top dozen players in the country. Allen is still around, too, a 6-5 senior and early national player of the year candidate.
Sophomore bigs Javin DeLaurier (6-10) and Marques Bolden (6-11) are part of one of the tallest, most imposing frontcourt rotations in recent memory. Yet what excites Krzyzewski most is his freshmen, who arrived ready to get after it on and off the court.
“They work hard and they want to learn,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s interesting to me, in the evolution of the game, how [they’re] not accustomed to watching themselves [make mistakes] on tape. They’re accustomed to watching themselves in mix tapes with music and they never miss a shot and they do a whole bunch of crazy-good things.”
They’re so young, the mistakes could cost them their No. 1 ranking almost right off the bat. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is only 1-10 against Duke, but his sophomore-driven Spartans (1-0) have a clear edge in experience and have upped the talent level in East Lansing considerably. There isn’t a bigger name in college basketball this season than 6-7 forward Miles Bridges, whose decision to return for his sophomore season was deemed a “Christmas present” by Izzo.
“Miles is, I think, somebody special for all of college basketball,” Izzo said, “because he’s my blue-collar star. And he’s got the humility and the humbleness of an everyday player and the skills of a very, very good player.”
Kansas (1-0) is favored (how could it not be?) to claim its 14th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title — a streak that continues to be as mind-blowing as any in sports. It’s senior guard Devonte’ Graham’s turn to lead the Jayhawks and 7-foot, 300-pound center Udoka Azubuike’s job to scare the heck out of everybody. This is a fun team with no obvious ceiling in sight.
Kentucky (2-0) appears to be sleepwalking thus far, which isn’t new to coach John Calipari. No one builds a team’s effort level over the course of a season better than Calipari. Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, P.J. Washington, Wenyen Gabriel — the length and athleticism is ridiculous.
Four championship contenders in one night, right in our backyard? That’s how you ring in a new season.
Six others that could win it all
Arizona: A Pac-12 team hasn’t cut down the nets at the Final Four since 1997, so keep that in mind. But junior Allonzo Trier and freshman skyscraper DeAndre Ayton are every bit as promising a one-two punch as Duke’s Allen and Bagley. A program insider says Ayton has made an even better first impression than current Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen did a year ago — and Markkanen hit the ground running.
Villanova: Coach Jay Wright has another experienced, tough, unselfish group led by former Stevenson star Jalen Brunson and explosive junior scorer Donte DiVincenzo.
Wichita State: The Shockers have moved from the Missouri Valley to the American, but everything else remains the same. No, really — their top 13 scorers are back from a 31-win team. Insane.
Florida: The Gators have added key pieces to a core group that reached the Elite Eight last March. If Kentucky fails to keep its foot on the pedal, here’s your SEC winner.
Cincinnati: Two from the American? Yep. The Bearcats return four of their top five scorers from a 30-win team, and their defense is second to none in the country. Their battles with Wichita State will be epic.
Miami: Basketball, not football. Growing pains for Duke’s freshmen could lead to an ACC title for the Hurricanes (or for Notre Dame, come to think of it).
The dream starting five
Grayson Allen, 6-5 G, Sr., Duke
Miles Bridges, 6-7 F, So., Michigan State
Jalen Brunson, 6-3 G, Jr., Villanova
Bonzie Colson, 6-6 F, Sr., Notre Dame
Michael Porter Jr., 6-10 F, Fr., Missouri
Top four conferences
1. ACC: Duke is No. 1, Miami and Notre Dame are highly dangerous, North Carolina is the defending national champion, Virginia Tech is surging, multiple other league teams are fighting for Top 25 position. It’s exhausting just thinking about it. This one isn’t remotely close.
2. SEC: This is a bit of a leap of faith, but the dogfight between Kentucky and Florida — and Texas A&M — for the league title could be that good. Alabama is coming on fast, too, and completely remade Missouri will be one of the most talked-about teams in the country.
3. Big Ten: Who’s going to challenge Michigan State for the top spot? Purdue will be outstanding. Minnesota, too. Will Northwestern take the next step? (Short answer: Yes.) Will Wisconsin figure out a way to be good again? (Again, yes.)
4. Big East: Villanova is a given. Xavier never disappoints. Which team makes the bigger move, Providence or Seton Hall? Many would say the Big 12 belongs here, but how deep is that league, really, if the same team wins it every year?
One more thing
In previous years, we’ve previewed the Big Ten season at the same time that we’ve sized up the national scene. This year, we’ll let the Big Ten teams breathe a bit — for another two and a half weeks or so — before we really dive in.
A nice change this season is that conference play begins on December 1, about a month earlier than usual. That opening Friday will include Illinois at Northwestern in Rosemont, the Wildcats’ temporary home.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.