Kansas takes on Michigan State tonight in the second year of the Champions Classic.
Last year a fairly inexperienced Kansas team marched into Madison Square Garden and, after putting up a good fight, lost by 10 to the eventual national champions in a defensive contest. This year, a fairly inexperienced Kansas team marches into the Georgia Dome where they will meet a Michigan State team that is currently woefully underrated, and should be among the national championship favorites in April.
Michigan State is known for playing tough schedules under Tom Izzo to get them ready for March, and his supporters can sure say that it has worked (I would counter by saying he has been extremely lucky, but that's for another day). The Spartans haven't always acquitted themselves in those contests, however, losing to both North Carolina and Duke last year, and UConn, Duke, Syracuse and Texas the year before. Izzo has said that his offense is complicated and his defensive rotations take awhile to grasp, which makes some of those early losses make a bit more sense, but it also leads to the questions of why it takes so long for the team to grasp given that they're not exactly Kentucky in terms of turning over a roster every year, and why they wouldn't schedule a few more easy wins to let the players get a grasp of the offense and defense before turning them over to the tough nonconference contests.
The Spartans are coming off a season opening loss to UConn on Friday, one that happened to take place in Germany, so their offense will further be hampered. Lest you think Kansas has the advantage, however, remember Kansas had an eFG of 40.3% on Friday. Against Southeast Missouri State. In Allen Fieldhouse. They also shot 2-21 from three and while I have a hard time believing it won't get better tonight, there also is the fact that they will be shooting in a dome to contend with.
The big matchup will be down low. Despite having a tough offensive game on Friday the Spartans still owned the offensive glass, grabbing almost half of their misses. Kansas's leading defensive rebounder in their opener was Ben McLemore, who had 9 of them, and they will need to make a conscious effort to hammer the glass with Jeff Withey more often than not being pulled out of position to block shots.
I expect the Spartans to sag in the lane when Kansas has the ball, and how could one blame them, which leads me to believe (or suggest) that two Freshmen carry the load on offense. I'd really like to see Ben McLemore getting the ball curling off screens and hopefully getting some one on one looks, but even moreso I would like to see Perry Ellis get the ball in the high post and let him go to work. Ellis is currently doing his best work on the offensive glass, but he shot very well in their season opener and has looked comfortable on both ends of the floor; perhaps more comfortable than any other Jayhawk.
Defensively, Kansas will have to stop Keith Appling. He had pedestrian numbers last year, but he is very athletic and had just one turnover in the loss to UConn. If he cleans up those turnovers this year he will be one of the better guards in the Big 10.
The other player to watch for the Spartans is Sophomore Branden Dawson. Dawson tore his ACL last March, but made a fantastic recovery to get ready for the start of this season. Dawson had almost a 60% eFG last year and was a fantastic offensive rebounder, and while he didn't have a great shooting day in the opener, he had 10 rebounds (8 offensive) and 5 steals. Given his size (6'6") and his versatility I would expect to see a lot of Releford on him, but maybe some McLemore as well depending on how his offense is clicking.
Statistically, Michigan State should probably win this game. Kansas is young and looks terrible offensively right now. But with the Spartans on their way back from Europe this is a great chance for Kansas to pick up a huge resume booster that could end up bumping them up a seed in March. Personally, however, I am going to play pessimist and take Michigan State to win 59-55.