- Seth Greenberg, ESPN Insider
Tuesday night's Champions Classic in Chicago will feature four of college basketball's elite programs, and four of the top five teams in the AP Top 25. The two matchups will showcase some of the nation's best returning players, as well as some of its most highly touted freshmen.
I've drawn up scouting reports on every team, the way I would if I were coaching against these teams, and included keys to the game for each matchup.
Here is my breakdown of the No. 2 Michigan State Spartans versus No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). You can also check out my in-depth look at No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks versus No. 4 Duke Blue Devils (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Scouting the Spartans
Tom Izzo has a mature, physical team that is invested in winning. Izzo's teams also defend and rebound, but the coach has said this season that he'll be committed to pushing the pace. He has a roster capable of attacking the defense, but how will the Spartans adjust to that style of play? Playing faster can't come at the expense of taking good shots and establishing a low-post presence.
Four-year starter Keith Appling is a key for the Spartans at the point. He must be a committed play starter and playmaker, but not MSU's primary scoring option, even though he led the Spartans in shot attempts last season. Izzo needs him to get the ball to Gary Harris in transition and off penetration and find Adreian Payne in early post-ups and as a trailer in transition. Appling needs to stay aggressive in looking for his own shot, especially in transition, but most importantly he needs to manage the game and make good decisions.
Payne is a unique talent. He runs the floor, can score on the block and can knock down the 3 off of pick-and-pops and off the high spread-ball screen. It will be interesting to see how Izzo uses his versatility offensively. Hybrid forward Branden Dawson (6-foot-6, 230 pounds) is another vital member of the Spartans. Now fully recovered from his ACL injury, he is a high-energy player who is a hard cutter and is relentless on the offensive glass. He has the ability to extend plays.
Harris is the most talented player on the Spartans. He plays the game with the moxie and pace of a seasoned veteran. He is a shot-maker who does an excellent job of reading screens, and he uses his shot fake to set up his drive. He is physical and is strong enough to play through contact.
Izzo has a rotation that goes eight or nine deep. Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling and Alex Gauna will need to provide consistent post play, Travis Trice is a skilled and versatile guard who can play either backcourt position, can shoot the ball with range and can provide solid defense on and off the ball, and Denzel Valentine can create plays for teammates with his excellent strength and vision.
Scouting the Wildcats
John Calipari put together what some consider to be the best recruiting class of all time this season, and this Wildcats roster possesses a unique blend of size, strength and explosive athletic ability. The personnel most notably differentiates itself from last season's team in the form of an elite point guard (Andrew Harrison) and go-to frontcourt player (Julius Randle). The challenge for Kentucky in 2013-14 will be to understand that the season is a journey and not a destination. Whether the Cats develop a trust and chemistry on offense and on defense will determine just how good they'll be.
A key to Calipari's dribble-drive offense is the ability of perimeter players to get downhill and force the defenses to give help. This season's Kentucky team will have four players on the floor who can make a play at most times. The big question will be how Calipari gets Randle into the paint for post-ups. Randle has a rare combination of size, strength, speed and skill. He has a small forward's skills -- as it's not uncommon for him to grab a defensive rebound, then lead the fast break -- but Calipari's challenge will be to keep him from falling in love with his jump shot, and instead get him in isolations and post-ups where he can be most effective.
Andrew Harrison is a physical, 6-5 point guard who has the size and strength to get in the lane and to make plays for others and finish on his own. His size makes him extremely effective in ball screens, and he can see over the defense and see all five defenders. Andrew's brother, Aaron Harrison, is a big shooting guard with 3-point range, and he actually slid over to point guard in the preseason when Andrew was injured. (That's important because point guard depth is one of the few areas of weakness on this roster.) He does have a tendency to hold on to the ball too long in the half-court game. James Young is a 6-7 wing with a 7-4 reach who has 3-point range, can explode to the basket off the dribble and is an active offensive rebounder.
Kentucky has great frontcourt depth and versatility, starting with Alex Poythress. He can play either forward spot but is best suited at the 4. He is hard to keep off the glass and can finish in transition, but, as a freshman he left you wanting more, given his skill level. It is important for him to play well if Kentucky is going to make a national title run.
Willie Cauley-Stein has every athletic trait to be a dominant frontcourt player, but the former wide receiver needs to translate that athletic ability to the court. He is an excellent ball-screen defender, and quick enough to be a rim protector. However, he needs to be able to rebound in traffic and prove he can finish off of dump-offs and post-ups. Fellow center Dakari Johnson is going to be a key piece, as he is patient on the block with great hands and excellent footwork. The only concern with him is how he'll defend ball screens.
Keys to the game
• Can the young Wildcats maintain intensity on defense and the backboards for 40 minutes? The Spartans are tough to keep off the glass, so UK will need to remain locked in for the entire possession every possession, as well as competing in defensive transition.
• Can the Spartans contain Andrew Harrison off the dribble and contain Randle in post-ups and isolations? Those are the Wildcats' two biggest physical mismatches.
• The key matchup in this one is MSU's Dawson versus Kentucky's Young. Dawson is a tall order for a lean freshman such as Young, as he's one of the hardest-playing and most physical forwards in the country. He can change the game on the offensive glass if Young and others can't contain him. As for Young, he's a volume shooter, so Dawson will need to locate him in transition and defend him on the catch.
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