MSU plays in the 5th Champion’s Classic on Tuesday night, this time facing Kansas. These two programs have a strong history with each other. The Jayhawks won a close game last year when the two met in a holiday tournament in the most recent meeting. MSU holds a 6-5 historical advantage over KU and is 3-1 since Bill Self took the job in Lawrence. The two have met once before in this event, with MSU winning by a 67-64 count.
KU is a preseason top 5 team according to most informed observers and won their opener by a 109-72 count over Northern Colorado. KU was still without highly regarded freshman Cheick Diallo, a highly regarded power forward with an incredibly high motor who has yet to be cleared academically by the NCAA. It would seem unlikely that he’d be cleared in time for Tuesday night’s game, so my assumption is that he won’t be playing. Similarly, though they haven’t officially been ruled out, I’m assuming MSU will not have either Gavin Schilling or Marvin Clark in this game. Both teams are going to look at this from the proper perspective…it’s a great early level check. Each also had an important summer experience. MSU went to Italy and played three European national teams while KU made up the majority of the US roster for the World University Games, which it won. They too faced national teams but not of the same level that MSU saw in Italy…no nation was sending it’s A team to the WUG.
BACKCOURT – KU starts two point guards in Frank Mason and Devonte Graham. Mason is a junior who is a two year starter and a guy who has gradually developed into that role. He shot very well last season (44/43%) though his three point attempts were relatively limited (less than 3 per game). He had almost exactly a 2:1 assist to TO ratio, but hopes are that he’ll continue to improve in decision making…he had 9 assists to 2 TOs in the opener. Graham is a little more of a natural point. He didn’t have any starts last season but Self seems to be taking a page from Duke’s book in going with both of his points in the starting lineup. Graham also shot decently last year (40/43%) but that was also in limited attempts. Wayne Selden is the true wing in the starting lineup. The 6’5″ junior has been a steady player for KU (third leading scorer last season and one of their more dynamic players) though he hasn’t quite lived up to expecations coming out of HS, where he was seen as a guy who might not be in Lawrence very long. Selden has good size at 6’5″, is a good athlete and a solid deep shooter, though he wasn’t great from inside the arc last season. If he can take a step up into being a reliable preimer scoring option, KU gets a lot better.
The two primary guard reserves are both guys with a good deal of size. Brannen Greene is a 6’7″ junior who has gradually seen his role increase over his time in Lawrence. He had a hugely productive game in their opener, scoring 18 points in just 14 minutes, which included a perfect 6-6 from the floor (5 of those came from outside the arc). He was a 40% deep shooter last year, so that kind of performance isn’t a fluke. 6’8″ sophomore Svi Mykhailiuk is the other player who will see significant reserve minutes. He had a lot of build up as a freshman but really struggled with his shot and averaged just 11 mpg. Expectations are that he’ll take a step up this season as he’s improved his strength and now has a year under his belt. Lagerald Vick is a 6’5″ freshman who saw time this summer for KU and again in the opener. He’s a versatile guy who can play some on or off the ball.
FRONTCOURT – Even without Diallo, this is a deep, effective group. The main man is 6’9″ senior Perry Ellis, who seems as if he’s been in Lawrence since Wilt Chamberlain was suiting up for the Jayhawks. Ellis is the kind of guy every program can use…good enough to contribute early but not so good or athletically gifted as to be an early entry candidate. He led KU in scoring and rebounding last season and it would be surprising if he doesn’t repeat that feat this year. Ellis is not an explosive athlete but he’s a smart and savvy big kid who uses good footwork, good touch and good strength to produce consistent numbers. Joining him in the starting lineup will be Jamari Traylor. He started about half the time last year, stepping into a role that highly regarded freshman big man Cliff Alexander was unable to claim. Traylor is a 6’8″ 225lbs senior who is more athletic than Ellis, though not nearly as skilled. He led Kansas in blocks with more than 1 per game last season and gives them a nice counter to Ellis’ polish.
Landen Lucas is a 6’10” 240lbs junior who started 14 times last year. He’s a big body who plays that way, using his size in the paint at both ends and not straying too much from that kind of role. He’s a luxury for Self, to have a body with that kind of physical presence and experience. Hunter Mickelson is a 6’10” 245lbs senior who started his career at Arkansas and who will also play a significant role. He started 5 of 8 games this summer but came off the bench in the opener, playing 13 minutes. He would seem to be the guy most likely to lose minutes to Diallo in the KU rotation if/when he becomes eligible but again, having him is a huge luxury. The most talented of the reserves is 6’9″ freshman McDonald’s All American Carlton Bragg. He played 17 minutes in the opener and is a guy who could see a much larger role in March than he’s got now, though he’ll continue to get consistent minutes all along. He has athletic burst that most of the other KU big men lack and as he gets more comfortable, I think that may be an element Self wants on the floor more often.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Mistakes – Both teams want to play fast. Both teams had some TO problems with MSU having 13 in its first game and KU registering 15 in its opener. In big games with relatively similar talent levels, turnovers tend to be a separator and any significant edge in that department probably goes a long way in deciding a winner.
2. Deep Ball – Both of these teams shot very well from three last season and seem likely to repeat that again this year. KU hit 38% from three last season and hit 58% of their long balls in the opener, so it appears it’s business as usual for the Jayhawks. Last season, MSU relied on the 3 more than did KU…the Spartans took about 4 more attempts per game than did the Jayhawks. KU did take 26 triples in their first game though, so maybe we’re about to see more emphasis on that shot from Self’s crew. Again, an edge for either in an area both consider to be a strength would be significant.
3. Post – KU’s post players essentially doubled up MSU’s group in terms of point production in last year’s game. I thought MSU’s guys fought hard but at times had real trouble dealing with guys like Ellis, and the Spartans gave up 13 offensive boards which was also a problem in a game which wasn’t played at a blistering pace. I think MSU is in far better shape to combat the Jayhawks inside this year, even without Schilling and Clark. One key guy to watch is Deyonta Davis. He had a major impact in MSU’s opener but he’s going to be tested physically in this game in exactly the kind of ways which could prove to be problematic for him early on. Hopefully he’s able to avoid foul trouble and use his length and athleticism to counter KU’s strength advantage.
4. Free Throws – The expectation is for MSU to be significantly improved from last season’s struggle but that didn’t show through in the opener. KU is a good free throw shooting group, so it’s reasonable to anticipate they’ll produce on their opportunities. MSU can’t afford to give away scoring chances in what should be a competitive game.
5. Pace – Both teams want to play fast…that’s no news to anyone who’s followed either team. However, I think it’s probably more important for MSU right now to get the game’s pace ramped up. Last season’s game was surprisingly slow and I think that hurt the Spartans, as that team didn’t have late clock bail out options to rely upon with regularity. This MSU team has more potential in that way, with newer pieces like Eron Harris and some growth from returning players giving Izzo more offensive versatility, but I still think a slower game plays to KU’s advantage.
OVERALL – KU’s the favorite and that’s fine by me…this is a game which looks pretty much like a toss-up to my eyes and that’s exactly what Champion’s Classic games are supposed to look like, at least on paper. As mentioned above, both coaches should enjoy playing this game in mid November, as it’ll give them each a good level check and a sense of where improvement needs to come.
I think it’ll be tight and competitive and probably come down to the last few possessions. MSU and KU have generally played games like that against each other since Self took that job…remember guys like Kalin Lucas and Keith Appling making big shots and last year KU making big plays at winning time. No real feel for which way it goes but it almost doesn’t matter. If MSU plays well, that’ll be OK by me. I love these games at this time of year regardless of outcome, because there’s no fooling yourself afterward. You have a good idea of who you are and what you need to be to become who you want to be by March. So bring it on.