The 2017-18 college basketball season started on Friday, but Tuesday’s Champions Classic in Chicago is the year’s first true headliner.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State and No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 5 Kentucky at the United Center (Coverage begins at 7 ET on ESPN) is a Final Four-like pairing of four programs with the potential to end the season in April atop the stage in San Antonio. The event will also feature future lottery picks: Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Kentucky’s Kevin Knox and Duke’s Marvin Bagley III.
It’s the proper kickoff to the college basketball season. But how do you separate four remarkable programs? Well, we’re here to try in our Ultimate Rankings for the Champions Classic.
We’ve ranked the four teams in the Champions Classic according to the following criteria: current talent, legacy, mascot, recruiting, success in the one-and-done era, head coach, staff, fans, home venue, uniforms and NBA alumni.
We’ve used a simple points system to compile our rankings: 1st (four points), 2nd (three points), 3rd (two points) and 4th (one point).
Feel free to disagree. (We know you will.)
Also, lighten up.
1. Duke Blue Devils
TOTAL POINTS: 34
Current talent (1st): Anchored by ESPN.com’s No. 1 recruiting class — headed by Marvin Bagley III — and the return of Grayson Allen, Duke has the strongest team in the country right now. The Blue Devils boast a group that’s favored to win the national championship.
Legacy (2nd): Mike Krzyzewski is the most important figure in Duke basketball history. But the Blue Devils played in four Final Fours before the school hired him in 1980.
Mascot (2nd): Just make sure security is vigilant whenever The Blue Devil gets near Sparty in Chicago. They’re both juicing.
Recruiting (2nd): Under Krzyzewski, Duke has competed for national championships since the 1980s. Plus, he’s the only coach who has knocked Kentucky down to No. 2 in ESPN.com’s recruiting rankings since Calipari’s arrival (2014, 2015 and 2017).
Uniforms (2nd): The black uniforms are the best in their collection. They should wear those every game.
Success in the one-and-done era (1st): Krzyzewski and Roy Williams are the only active coaches with multiple national titles in the one-and-done era. And Duke has earned championships during that stretch with both veterans (2010) and freshman stars (2015).
Head coach (1st): Krzyzewski picked up his 1,000th win at Duke last week, and he has kept the Blue Devils relevant and competitive for nearly four decades. The program has missed just one NCAA tournament since 1984 under Krzyzewski, the greatest coach in college basketball history.
Staff (1st): Jeff Capel deserves credit for his under-the-radar work as Krzyzewski’s top assistant and the key to the talent pipeline Duke has enjoyed in the one-and-done era. With Nate James, Jon Scheyer and Capel, Duke possesses three capable assistants who could all secure head-coaching opportunities in the near future.
Fans (4th): If you dislike their squad, they assume it’s because you’re a hater, your team stinks and you’re jealous of their success. And they’ll tell you that to your face while they camp out for season tickets.
Home venue (3rd): It feels like you’re watching a basketball game while twirling in a washing machine whenever you’re at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Someone will spill something on you before leave, but you won’t complain because that’s the price of attending a matchup at this nostalgic venue.
NBA alumni (2nd): The Blue Devils have produced former NBA veterans such as Johnny Dawkins, All-Stars such as Grant Hill and current standouts such as Kyrie Irving. Longevity is the greatest trait of Duke’s NBA talent, with Hill topping a list of a dozen Blue Devils who’ve been coached by Krzyzewski and played in the NBA for a decade or more.
TOTAL POINTS: 30
Current talent (4th): John Calipari has one of the youngest teams of his tenure, but this is an intriguing group that will overwhelm many opponents with its athleticism. Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo & Co. entered the season as the favorites to win the SEC.
Legacy (1st): Kentucky, the winningest program in Division I history with 2,237 victories, has won eight national titles. Calipari’s arrival extended the school’s successful tradition, commenced by legendary coach Adolph Rupp in the 1940s.
Mascot (3rd): The Wildcat is always looking for a fight. Don’t test him.
Recruiting (1st): Since accepting the job in 2009, Calipari has finished first or second in ESPN.com’s recruiting rankings every season. He’s the most successful assembler of talent in the one-and-done era, and it’s not close.
Uniforms (4th): So much blue in the Champions Classic. Kentucky’s uniforms don’t have the same pizazz as the others, though.
Success in the one-and-done era (2nd): Calipari has led this program to a quartet of Final Fours, and his Anthony Davis-led group won the national championship in 2012. Kentucky is usually a threat to win it all.
Head coach (3rd): If coaching young stars were simple, then Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz would have led LSU and Washington, respectively, to the NCAA tournament. Calipari rebuilds every season and still manages to enter the postseason with a shot at the national championship most years.
Staff (2nd): Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins will all tell you associate head coach Kenny Payne’s guidance helped them blossom into elite big men. Tony Barbee is a former Division I head coach and Joel Justus is a recent addition who is helping Kentucky remain attractive to top-10 recruits and analyze players with analytics and next-level tools.
Fans (3rd): They’ll follow their Wildcats anywhere and support them with a passion no fan base can match. But they’re also sometimes unreasonable and ridiculous.
Home venue (1st): In a big game, the Rupp Arena crowd emits a sound that shakes everything in the building. With 23,500 wild Kentucky fans screaming for two halves, opponents often drown in the noise.
NBA alumni (1st): Any reputable list of the top players in the NBA includes Davis, Towns, Cousins, John Wall and Devin Booker. Two years ago, Calipari hosted an NBA combine and more than 90 NBA scouts and executives flew to Lexington and attended.
TOTAL POINTS: 24
Current talent (3rd): Bill Self’s backcourt of Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman can compete with any collection of guards in the country. The Jayhawks lack depth in the paint, but a healthy Udoka Azubuike gives them the brawn they need in the post to compete with the best.
Legacy (3rd): Kansas has vied for national titles since 1940, when it suffered a loss to Indiana in the championship game. It’s also a winner of three national titles and is No. 2 in college basketball history with 2,217 wins.
Mascot (4th): The Jayhawk is iconic. But it’s not the most impressive mascot in this group.
Recruiting (3rd): Self’s 2018 class is ranked fourth right now on ESPN.com. With Josh Jackson, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and other stars signing with Kansas in recent years, he Self continued to stay in the mix for the nation’s top talent.
Uniforms (1st): The dark-blue jerseys with the red trim, one of many the team will wear this season, are so slick.
Success in the one-and-done era (3rd): Bill Self’s program enters the season in pursuit of a 14th straight Big 12 championship, which would surpass UCLA’s record of consecutive league titles, established in the 1960s and 1970s and matched by Kansas last season. But Big 12 dominance has not led to postseason success for Kansas, which has one national title and two Final Four appearances under Self.
Head coach (4th): Self is one of college basketball’s top coaches. He has turned unheralded players such as Frank Mason III into stars and kept his foot on an entire conference for more than a decade.
Staff (3rd): Jerrance Howard, Norm Roberts and Kurtis Townsend comprise a staff that has helped Self sign top prospects and maintain its Big 12 title streak. And don’t forget about the contribution of Andrea Hudy, America’s best strength coach.
Fans (1st): They’re loyal, energetic and consistent. But they’re also sensitive about the program’s postseason mishaps, so stick to the Big 12 streak in all conversations with KU fans.
Home venue (2nd): Self has lost just 10 games at Allen Fieldhouse. That’s the most intimidating environment in the country, especially when the fans all sing “Rock Chalk” after a win.
NBA alumni (4th): Paul Pierce will enter the Hall of Fame in the near future, and Andrew Wiggins and Embiid are two of the NBA’s top young talents. But few Jayhawks have found stardom at the next level, especially in the past 10 years.
Michigan State Spartans
TOTAL POINTS: 22
Current talent (2nd):Miles Bridges was the consensus preseason national player of the year after he rejected millions at the next level to return to East Lansing. A healthy Michigan State squad is the Big Ten favorite and contender to win Tom Izzo’s second national title.
Legacy (4th): The statue of Magic Johnson outside the Breslin Center is the strongest symbol of the program’s legacy. That 1979 national championship under Jud Heathcote kicked off a string of success for the Spartans in the following decades.
Mascot (1st): Has anyone tested Sparty for PEDs? He’s obviously using something.
Recruiting (4th): Izzo is not the biggest draw of one-and-done talent on this list, but his 2018 class is ranked within the top 10 on ESPN.com. He finds the right players for his system, regardless of ranking, and helps them evolve into high-level players.
Uniforms (3rd): The white jerseys with the green lettering are bad, man. Like, bad as in good.
Success in the one-and-done era (4th): Michigan State has reached three Final Fours and won three Big Ten championships since 2009. But the Spartans are the only team in Chicago without a national title in the one-and-done era.
Head coach (2nd): Izzo has led Michigan State to seven Final Fours and a 2000 national championship. He has also turned gems such as Denzel Valentine (ranked 98th in his class) and Draymond Green (ranked 36th in his class) into first team All-Americans.
Staff (4th): Dwayne Stephens, associate head coach, has helped the Spartans finish in the top 50 in offensive rebounding rate eight times since 2005, per KenPom.com. And the previous head-coaching experience of assistants Dane Fife and Mike Garland enhances the entire program.
Fans (2nd): They’re respectful before the game, but they’ll talk about your girlfriend and her mama when you’re at the free throw line. Yeah, they love their Spartans, but they’re also the first ones to admit when the team missed the mark.
Home venue (4th): The bass player with the school band is perfect for the funky environment at the Breslin Center. Toward the end of tight games, no place in the country is more hectic.
NBA Alumni (3rd): The greatest point guard in NBA history anchors this group. But after Johnson, Michigan State also sent Steve Smith, Morris Peterson, Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson and Green to the league.