Blue-Blood Battles: The Key Matchups and Storylines to Watch in the Champions Classic
The first big college basketball event of the 2022-23 season takes place Tuesday night. And we’re using AutoStats tracking data to break down the showdowns between Final Four regulars.
The college basketball season tipped off last week, but there was a distinct lack of quality matchups.
That all changes this week with the Champions Classic doubleheader on Tuesday night pitting four NCAA Tournament regulars. The Michigan State Spartans face the Kentucky Wildcats (No. 4 in our TRACR rankings) before the Duke Blue Devils (No. 2 in TRACR) battle the Kansas Jayhawks (22nd) on a neutral site at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The typically season-opening event was moved back a week but should still mark the unofficial start of the college hoops campaign after an opening week of tune-ups.
Here are some key matchups and storylines to track in these marquee college basketball games based on last year’s AutoStats data.
Michigan State vs. No. 4 Kentucky
Key Matchup: The Point Guard Duel
The early NCAA showdown features a battle of experienced upperclassmen point guards. Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler returned from injury to play 27 minutes off the bench on Friday. He’ll be up against Michigan State’s point guard duo of junior AJ Hoggard and senior Tyson Walker.
Walker, Hoggard, and Wheeler are among the best guards in the country at creating assist opportunities for their teammates.
Key Matchup: The Transition Battle
The team that wins the transition battle between Michigan State and Kentucky should have the upper hand.
Tom Izzo’s offense has been renowned for its transition break for his entire career, but Kentucky had the higher volume transition offense last season.
According to AutoStats data, Kentucky finished third among qualified teams in the percentage of offensive chances that came in transition last year. An impressive 11.4% of UK’s offensive chances were transition opportunities compared to Michigan State’s 9.0%, which ranked 28th among qualified teams.
We know that both teams will try to push the ball at any opportunity possible, but their discipline in defending in transition will be the difference maker.
Storyline to Watch: Kentucky’s Shooting
Kentucky scorched the nets in its early season wins over Howard and Duquesne. The Wildcats made an incredible 51.2% of their 3-point attempts during those two contests.
That improved perimeter shooting is a product of two players who didn’t see the floor last year. Six-foot-5 Illinois State transfer Antonio Reeves has knocked down 10 of his first 18 3-point attempts, while Iowa transfer CJ Fredrick, who missed last year due to injury, is 6 of 12 from deep.
A year ago, Kentucky only had one player who shot better than 40% from 3-point range in Davidson transfer Kellan Grady.
Both Michigan State and Kentucky had no problem generating open looks from 3 last season. They both ranked in the top 20 in percentage of uncontested 3s, but early returns are that this Kentucky team is much more dangerous from 3-point range than last year’s group.
Results are still out on Michigan State, which shot 33% from 3-point range in its opener but just 19% against Gonzaga in a game played on the USS Abraham Lincoln.
No. 7 Duke vs. No. 5 Kansas
Storyline to Watch: Fresh Faces
While veteran guards stand out in the early game, the late matchup is a traditional Champions Classic affair between a pair of blue-blood programs with re-built and re-tooled rosters. Kansas and Duke will look different from the teams they were last year, but that doesn’t mean they are short on talent. It does make it particularly difficult to forecast how their matchup will play out on Tuesday night.
There’s probably no change in college basketball as significant as Jon Scheyer replacing legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski, but he’ll also have almost an entirely new team. Seven of Duke’s top nine players weren’t on the roster last year. That includes five freshmen and two Big Ten transfers. Of the seven players who saw double-digit minutes in Kansas’ national championship win in April, only two are back for Bill Self.
Storyline to Watch: Wilson’s New Skill
Kansas forward Jalen Wilson is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds to open the season. It’s hard to label a starter and double-digit scorer from last year’s national champions as having a “breakout” start, but Wilson is doing just that.
Wilson has always been a secondary offensive option for Self, but he’s stepping into a primary scoring role this season.
One area where he’s shown significant improvement is in his ability to make jump shots off the dribble. A year ago, he shot just 26.2% on off-the-dribble jumpers, per AutoStats. This year, he’s already knocked down 5 of 10 off the bounce in just two games.
Storyline to Watch: Roach’s Ball-Screen Efficiency
Of the guards in the Champions Classic, Jeremy Roach was the most efficient ball-screen scorer last season.
Duke scored .93 points per chance when Roach operated out of ball screens, but he only ran .17 ball screens per touch – well below other guards in the event and across the country.
Now a junior and one of the only returning players on the roster, Roach should step into a larger offensive role.
Whether his ball-screen efficiency can keep up might make the difference on a Duke roster with so many new pieces.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to our mailing list to receive exclusive weekly content.