Editor’s note: It’s time to reveal the fields for some of college basketball’s biggest early season tournaments. Follow along as we break down the tournaments. All previews can be found here.
Tournament: State Farm Champions Classic
When and where: Nov. 18 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
Teams involved: Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State, Duke
Initial thoughts: For all of the quibbles one could reasonably bring up about the structure of the college basketball season -- particularly its beginning -- it's impossible to express anything but undying love for the Champions Classic. The two-game event began two years ago, and was borne of that aforementioned November malaise. College hoops needed a resounding "kickoff," to borrow a phrase from a vastly inferior sport. It needed something to galvanize the type of fan who didn't understand the subtle allure of 50-point guarantee game blowouts. (Crazy, right?) This problem has produced a bunch of solutions. Some have worked (the first Carrier Classic). Some have not (every other aircraft carrier game).
The Champions Classic is one that works, mostly because it's so simple: Four marquee programs with four great coaches leading four inevitably talented rosters playing one game at a time in a revolving tour of high-profile basketball locations. This year we get Michigan State versus Duke and Kentucky versus Kansas in downtown Indianapolis, which might be the best place (mostly because of the obsessed fans, but also because of St. Elmo's) to host a major basketball event. It's a win for everybody. All four teams get a major game on their schedule early in the season, as well as a big chance at exposure that used to be hard to come by that early in the calendar. The rest of us get a chance to see some of the best talent in the country about as early as we could have hoped.
Man, the Champions Classic is awesome. Can it be November now? Please?
Why you'll want to watch: If the above paragraphs didn't persuade you, let's dig a little deeper. The first matchup of the night, Michigan State versus Duke, goes beyond the big names. The Spartans look certain to be the least talented team of the four in Indianapolis, but they still have some guys who can really play -- Denzel Valentine might be the most entertaining passer in college basketball. And they'll be facing a Duke team that is bringing in the No. 1 class in the country, one reminscient of the type John Calipari usually hauls in at Kentucky.
After Mike Krzyzewski finishes this summer's USA Basketball responsibilities, he'll have the task of integrating four top 21 players in the class of 2014, including the No. 1 (center Jahlil Okafor) and No. 4 (point guard Tyus Jones) overall prospects. They’ll play alongside fellow freshmen Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen, who will compete for time with Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon. (Amile Jefferson, who looked better and better as last season rolled along, will be on the block, too.) The overall talent level is as high as any team Krzyzewski has coached in years, including the one he just had, and that Jabari Parker dude was pretty good. Seeing these guys figuring it out on the fly should be a lot of fun.
Speaking of Kentucky, well, Kentucky is just terrifying. The combination of players returning (Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee) and top recruits arriving (Karl Towns, Trey Lyles) adds up to a roster that will likely start two 6-foot-6 guards alongside an absolutely massive front line, no matter what configuration Calipari uses. Towns is 7-foot-1, Johnson and Cauley-Stein 7-foot, Lee 6-foot-10 with a freakish leap, Lyles is 6-foot-10 and versatile … I mean, the list goes on. I don't know exactly which lineup the Wildcats will eventually settle on, or if they will just pummel opponents in waves all season. But it's terrifying, that's for sure.
And, of course, Kansas is Kansas. The Jayhawks are always good, even when it seems like they shouldn't be, and this isn't one of those seasons. Bill Self will be among the nation's first coaches to try to figure out how to stop UK's barrage of size, but UK will be among the first to have to guard what could be a wildly improved and exciting star in forward Wayne Selden.
These are the kinds of matchups the Champions Classic exists to provide. Why *wouldn't* you watch?