The ESPN Tip-Off Marathon concludes with the marquee Champions Classic, a doubleheader in Atlanta featuring Kansas-Michigan State and Kentucky-Duke. With that in mind, we asked two of our writers to pick which one of those has the best chance to return to Atlanta for the Final Four.
Andy Katz: Kansas
KU coach Bill Self was clear a year ago that the Jayhawk with the most NBA potential wasn’t even eligible. That is saying quite a lot, considering Thomas Robinson was as dominant a player at his position as any other in the country (save Anthony Davis). So if Ben McLemore is just as difficult to defend, then Kansas is the best bet from this Champions Classic group to return to Atlanta. The addition of another scoring newcomer in Perry Ellis bodes well for the Jayhawks as well.
Jeff Withey still doesn’t need to be a No. 1 option with the scoring pop provided by McLemore and Ellis. And the experience of players such as Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson gives the Jayhawks the depth and experience that a champion covets. The Big 12 will have a challenger or two -- this may be the deepest conference in the country in terms of percentage of teams making the NCAA field. But if that’s the case, then KU will be as tested as any other team when it gets ready for March. Look, Kansas has winners and there is plenty to feel good about here. The easy thing to do is to write off this team because of the departures of Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. But the Jayhawks have more depth this season and a confidence to get to the Final Four after reaching the title game this past spring. Being in that environment bodes well for KU's chances. I’ve been fooled too many times by the Jayhawks. I’m not about to get burned again on KU.
Jason King: Kentucky
No team in the Champions Classic field has as much talent as Kentucky, and no one has as big of an upside as the Wildcats. The UK squad that faces Duke tonight won’t look anything like the team that will take the court in February and March. Four of the Cats' top six players are freshmen who have played one college game. The three C’s -- chemistry, cohesion and confidence -- aren’t there. Not yet. But they will be eventually because of the man on the sideline. No coach in America is as good as John Calipari at working with and developing highly touted freshmen who plan to spend only a year or two in college. His first team reached the Elite Eight, his next team went to the Final Four and last year’s squad won the NCAA title. Calipari has proven time and time again that he can win at the highest level with 18- and 19-year-old kids.
To be clear, I don’t think this Kentucky team will ever be as good as the group that won it all in New Orleans in April. Heck, this may be Calipari’s worst Kentucky unit. Not a single player on the roster made a significant contribution to last season’s championship squad. Remember, though, that college basketball is short on elite teams. Across the nation, the parity is as strong as it has been in years. I highly doubt we’ll see many two- or three-loss teams as we did a year ago. During the season’s most important stretch, I expect Kentucky to use a mix of talent, coaching and fan support to propel itself into the Final Four for the third straight year. I’m not going to judge the Wildcats by what happens against Duke tonight. I know Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, Kyle Wiltjer & Co. will come together when it matters most. It has become the Kentucky way.