It’s a showdown with the the top two teams in the country. The Clash of the Titans. Michigan State and Duke go head-to-head tonight in the Champions Classic during a huge night of college hoops.
Returning stars Miles Bridges and Grayson Allen will each be in action for their respective teams, and fans will get a chance to see freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. for Michigan State and Marvin Bagley III for Duke.
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You know it’s a heavyweight doubleheader, when Kansas vs. Kentucky is the undercard.
Actually, the main event of the Champions Classic comes in the first game Tuesday night. Duke vs. Michigan State. More? Mike Krzyzewski vs. Tom Izzo. More? No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Associated Press poll – for only the seventh time this century.
That requires a brief discussion on the history of No. 1 vs. No. 2 which we can get to in a moment. But first, about Tuesday night in Chicago’s United Center.
“It’s not just another game. I don’t think it’s another game for them, either,” Izzo said.
“It should be a hell of a night,” Krzyzewski mentioned.
There’s Duke, starting four freshmen for the first time in 35 years, putting up 97 and 99 in its first two games, with double-doubles each night from Marvin Bagley III. No freshman had ever done that his first two games as a Blue Devil.
Krzyzewski’s advice to all his newcomers about Tuesday night?
“Not to let the moment defeat them, let the moment excite them.”
There’s Michigan State, with Miles Bridges opening his Player of the Year campaign with a double-double in a 98-66 rout of North Florida, and the Spartans scoring 60 points in the paint. Their high all last season was 42.
There’s 70-year-old Krzyzewski, who just won his 1,000th game at Duke.
And 62-year-old Izzo – “The guy coaching them, he’s older, but not as old as me,” Krzyzewski noted – who doesn’t need to be reminded of one ugly number on his otherwise shining record. He’s 1-10 against Mike Krzyzewski.
“Everybody knows that,” he said. “At least I do. Every single day I do.”
There’s the other game, too, and it’s awfully good.
In the season opener, Kentucky started five freshmen for the first time since the 2014 national championship game and had to hustle from 12 points down to beat Utah Valley 73-63. Two nights later, the green Big Blue huffed and puffed past Vermont 73-69.
“There’s just so much we have to do,” John Calipari said, “and part of this early is going to be about survival.”
He also mentioned Sunday that “you cannot play Popcorn State and learn anything.” Well, they’re not playing Popcorn State Tuesday night.
Kansas, replacing three of its top four scorers, did not miss a shot the first seven minutes of the season and blew past Tennessee State 92-56, with Devonte’ Graham contributing 10 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists and three steals.
“We’ve got to play with more of a tougher mindset,” Bill Self said of the Kentucky assignment.
So this annual November convention of bluebloods – with 8,234 all-time victories and 18 national titles among them — is ready for its seventh edition. In three of the six seasons, the Champions Classic has sent at least one team to the Final Four – though none the past two years. You want gravitas? All four coaches are in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s one of the greatest nights of college basketball with those four teams playing. I’m damn proud that we’re one of the four that have done this year after year after year,” Izzo said. “We’ve held our own in it.”
For the record, Kentucky is 5-1 in the event, Michigan State 3-3, Kansas and Duke each 2-4.
And this year, it glitters even more with No. 1 vs. No. 2. The very phrase evokes a certain aura, and it should. Some of college basketball’s most hallowed moments were born from such a matchup, using the Associated Press poll.