The Champions Classic shifted a bit this year, opening about three games in (at least for Duke and Kansas) to accommodate Election Day.
#5 Kansas of course is coming off of Bill Self’s second national championship and not surprisingly, KU loses a lot from that team.
Ochai Agbaji, who became a tremendous player for Bill Self, is gone. So is Christian Braun, who turned in a really solid NCAA tournament, and big man David McCormack. Remy Martin was great down the stretch and reserves Mitch Lightfoot and Jalen Coleman-Lands are also gone.
Self gets Jalen Wilson back, along with Dajuan Harris, Joseph Yefusu, Zach Clemence, KJ Adams Jr., Bobby Pettiford and Cam Martin.
The 6-8 Wilson is probably the best returnee. In the first two games he’s averaging 20 points and 10 boards. Granted that came against Omaha and North Dakota State but it’s still impressive.
Dajuan Harris, at 6-1 junior, runs the point and he’s an excellent defender. He’ll be a factor.
Kevin McCullar’s official bio says that the Texas Tech transfer will redshirt this year, but he’s averaging 23 mpg and that kind of suggests that the 6-6 senior may not sit out.
Adams, Pettiford and Yesufu got healthy minutes in the first two games, but that may be because the opposition wasn’t that good.
Two freshmen have also shown star potential. Durham native MJ Rice (6-5) was excellent against North Dakota State with 10 points (5-10/0-2) and five boards.
And he’s not the only Durham native on the roster: sophomore Bobby Pettiford is also on the roster. The official Kansas site says they grew up on the same street which, you have to admit, is pretty cool for Kansas.
Playing two Durham natives may not be quite as cool for Duke, however. Keep an eye on those two.
Rice is going to be very good. But based on what we’ve seen so far, fellow freshman Grady Dick looks like a real problem.
A 6-8 Kansas native – he grew up in Wichita – Dick’s highlights show that he’s got immense potential. He shoots beautifully and his instincts appear to be very solid. He’s going to be very difficult to contain.
Like Kansas, it’s hard to know a lot about Duke after essentially warm-up games against opponents inferiors.
We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from freshmen Mark Mitchell and Kyle Filipowski.
Filipowski hasn’t been perfect. Like Proctor, he is still settling in. Even so, he’s got two double-doubles to start the season and we’re only two games in. He’s only going to get better as the season goes on.
Mitchell has shown some big-timeness as well and he may be a very big deal in this game. He seems like a likely defender for Dick and stopping Kansas probably starts with stopping that guy.
Mitchell is obviously a major offensive factor for Duke and KU has to guard him as well. It’s worth mentioning that Mitchell is a Kansan (he’s from Kansas City, just 40 minutes or so from Lawrence. He was close enough to go play pickup if he chose).
Dereck Lively is just now coming back from his calf injury but we saw a fleet big man who can apply real defensive pressure inside. We really haven’t begun to see his best.
We have also not yet seen the best of Tyrese Proctor, but against USC Upstate, we saw some great instincts. He just needs to settle in.
Starting point guard Jeremy Roach is providing the steady hand you would want and that Duke will need here.
Ryan Young has played well as a starter. The 6-9 transfer has been a nice surprise. He is somewhat limited athletically but knows how to work inside and is showing some defensive heart too.
Jaylen Blakes was sensational against Upstate, particularly on defense. Mike Krzyzewski used to use a certain 12-letter word to describe players he really admired. Blakes has a chance to become one on defense, which is his ticket to more minutes, and offensively he’s improving too.
Jacob Grandison came advertised as a three point shooter, but his leadership is proving just as critical. This may have been kind of overlooked, but he showed excellent instincts against Upstate and made a beautiful pass inside for an easy basket. The pass wasn’t easy but he made it quickly, which is a great sign.
It’s worth noting that coach Bill Self is currently suspended by the NCAA and will not be on the sidelines.
So what happens here?
Well this is a tough one to call for a lot of reasons. A number of key players on both sides are freshmen. Who knows how they do in their first big game?
And while Self is suspended, Duke’s Jon Scheyer is just two games in. He’ll face off with Norm Roberts, who had a 105-185 record as head coach at St. John’s. How will he do? How will Scheyer do?
It’s impossible to know. As always, while preparation is a major key, this will be settled by the players on the court. And that’s going to be fun to watch.