After seven grueling months of waiting, the best time of the year is finally here. The Virginia Cavaliers cutting down the nets in Minneapolis is now distant history, and the annual college basketball tip-off event is a few hours away. The bluebloods that are Michigan State, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky matchup against one another to begin the basketball season in what is one of my favorite traditions in all of sports. This year is unique in the sense that it is the first time where it will be the preseason No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Duke vs. No. 4 Kansas. The best four teams and perhaps the best four coaches are all on display tonight; buckle up, this is going to be fun.
7:30 PM: No. 3 Duke vs. No. 4 Kansas
Both of these teams are going into tonight looking very different than they did last year. Starting with the obvious in Duke needing to replace their big three of Zion, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. Duke returns one starter from last year in PG Tre Jones. Jones looked excellent last year surrounded by all that talent, putting up the third best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country. That on the surface is very impressive, but I really doubt he is going to perform that efficiently this year given the changing of the guard around him. Duke is projected to start four freshmen around him in backcourt partner Cassius Stanley, followed by forward Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt and Vernon Carey. Nobody is questioning their talent as three of those freshmen are five star recruits, the thing is they are just not Zion, R.J. and Reddish. Compound that with Duke being bereft of upperclassmen talent. Frontcourt senior tandem Jack White and Javin Delaurier will be asked to play a role I’m not sure they have the capabilities to flourish in. That being said, nobody is feeling bad for Coach K, as Duke is expected to be really good once again. He will figure it out eventually as he always seems to do, but I believe the lack of experience is going to play a major factor early in the season. Carey comes into this year as the No. 6 ranked recruit in the country, and he has one of the toughest matchups college basketball can offer to begin his career. Udoka Azubuike is healthy again and although he hasn’t played in a competitive game in 10 months he will be ready to dominante out the gate. Kansas loses their Mr. Everything in Dedric Lawson, but they are very well poised to replace his production. Swingman Jalen Wilson is the Jayhawks only freshman in the ESPN top 100, but they have far more experience than the young Dukes. The versatile Marcus Garrett returns for his junior year; look for him to give whatever freshman he’s assigned to absolute fits. Silvio De Sousa comes back from NCAA suspension, which provides even further frontcourt prowess to help out Azubuike. The experience and maturity is there for Kansas who need that more than any other team in the country at the moment due to ongoing NCAA investigations about their recruiting. Bill Self and his team have been hearing about that all offseason; tomorrow night will provide them with some reprieve from that. Duke has more pure talent than Kansas and will probably be better come tourney time, but Kansas has too much size and experience for Duke to handle, at least for tonight.
Kansas 77 Duke 70
9:30 PM: No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky
The news broke last week that senior guard Josh Langford is out indefinitely for the Spartans, which will definitely hurt them early in the year and especially in such a high profile game like tonight. His absence means that Michigan State is going to have to throw sharpshooting freshman Mark “Rocket” Watts into the fire early. Lucky for Watts he has the best player in the country as his backcourt partner. Tonight and all year, Tom Izzo’s squad will go as far as preseason play of the year Cassius Winston takes them. Winston might have his toughest challenge all year tonight, as he’ll be matched up with Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans. Hagans was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last year as a freshman and he won’t be intimidated by the daunting task of slowing down Cassius Winston. Similar to Winston, Hagans has a freshman backcourt partner in Tyrese Maxey. Maxey is the No. 13 ranked player out of high school, which is slightly higher than Michigan State’s Watts. I see a slight edge to MSU in the backcourts, however not by much. That backcourt edge could prove to be the key to the game, as both teams are very evenly matched everywhere else. Aaron Henry is expected to be the second scoring option for Izzo in his sophomore year, but big surprise, he makes his sophomore debut against another five star freshman, Kahlil Whitney. The 6-foot-7 Whitney is going to be a fantastic college basketball player right away, but I see Henry edging that matchup simply due to his physicality and IQ. Finally, the frontcourt edge goes to Kentucky, as they return Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery. Montgomery proved last year he can stretch the floor, similar to his teammate and current Charlotte Hornet P.J. Washington. Nick Ricards is just a giant human, with a 7-foot-4 wingspan. Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman will have to control whichever one he is defending, which is he fully capable of doing. I say that because there are major questions over who will be alongside him. Whether it be Thomas Kithier or Marcus Bingham Jr., they will have to take a massive jump from their freshman years if they are going to compete with a frontcourt like Kentucky. I see this one being a defensive battle, between what I believe are far and away the best two teams in the country. Michigan State gets hot late, and Cassius Winston controls the tempo of the game to withstand Kentucky dominating the glass.
Michigan State 61 Kentucky 58