It’s rare that Kansas basketball is maybe the third most important thing on KU fandom’s mind, but with an election Tuesday and KU in the midst of another football coaching search, the Champions Classic may have taken a bit of a backseat thus far.
Michigan State lost its two most talented players off last year’s team, but unlike Kansas neither one was a guard. They do return an experienced, and very good, backcourt, which should cause Kansas some worry, especially in a season opener.
The Spartans will probably start 1 senior, 3 juniors, and a freshman (maybe?), and will have the experience edge over the Jayhawks, something we didn’t say much of the last couple seasons.
Offensively, Michigan State was one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country last year, making over 40 percent of their attempts. The saving grace for Kansas is Michigan State didn’t take a ton of threes last year, and two of their top five shooters in terms of both percentage and attempts are gone. Still, the Spartans return three experienced and prolific 3-point shooters, and Kansas will do well to get out on them.
Michigan State also returns the nation’s best offensive rebounder in Nick Ward. Udoka Azubuike is famously not a stalwart on the glass, which also has me a bit worried for Tuesday night. The Jayhawks do have more size than last season, however, so the hope is they can gang up on the glass and limit the Spartans’ rebounding opportunities.
Of note: Michigan State was held to under a 35 percent offensive rebound rate in each of their losses last year, other than their final loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The best news of this matchup is Michigan State was 340th nationally at forcing turnovers last season. For a KU team that had a bit of an issue in that department over their first two exhibition contests, that will be a welcome sight. MSU more than made up for it, however, by leading the nation in eFG and 2-point percentage allowed.
The Spartans don’t give up many threes either, meaning the Jayhawks will have to work for their opportunities. Transition opportunities will also be limited, as Michigan State ranked in the top 50 nationally in transition baskets given up (via hoop-math). Add it all together, and the Spartans could be pretty tough to score on.
Players to Watch
Cassius Winston, 6-0 junior guard.
Winston ranked 2nd nationally in assist rate last year, and also made 49.7 percent of his 151 3-point attempts. Not exactly the matchup you would want if you were Devon Dotson playing in your first college game.
Nick Ward, 6-8 junior forward
Ward is the aforementioned best offensive rebounder in the country. He also had a nice game against Kansas as a freshman with 13 points and 4 rebounds in a second round NCAA tournament matchup. He’s expanded his game to where he’s not dependent on offensive rebounds to score, but stopping him from getting said rebounds would go a long way towards winning the game.
I think this somewhat has the makings of a rock fight like last year’s Champions Classic game against Kentucky. Both teams figure to get much better as the season goes along (duh, so will everyone else), but with both teams replacing some key guys, we definitely won’t get a full taste of what this matchup could produce. Kansas has the talent edge, but with them having to replace a couple more important pieces than the Spartans, Michigan State should be able to keep it close. I’ll take Kansas in a squeaker, 74-68.