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Champions Classic Preview: Michigan State

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KU starts with a tough but unranked opponent

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-UCLA at Michigan State Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

After only one official exhibition game, an easy win over Emporia State last week, the Jayhawks are ready to start their season in earnest Tuesday night, playing their annual Champions Classic game to kick off the regular season. This year, the Kansas plays Michigan State in the revolving-opponent style yearly series.

The Spartans are coming off their worst season of the KenPom era, ranking 64th in Pomeroy’s metric, and barely squeaking into the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed. Once in the tournament, they would give future Final Four contender UCLA all they could handle, but ultimately lost in overtime.

Expectations are definitely higher for this year’s MSU team, but at this point, models still don’t see them as a top tier team. KenPom’s preseason ranking is 22nd, with Bart Torvik rating them 28th. For reference, those measures have Kansas ranked 3rd and 6th, respectively.

Players to Watch

These previews should get more in-depth as we get more data points for both Kansas and their opponents as the season progresses. For now, it’s a bit hard to say what to expect out of Michigan State. Several of the key contributors on last year’s disappointing team are gone, so even if Michigan State progresses as the analytics suggest, there may be some time needed for this team to gel. That said, there are some players to keep an eye on.

Max Christie, freshman guard/wing

Christie was the gem of Tom Izzo’s recruiting class, a 5 star shooting guard standing 6’6. His reputation is as a shooter, with some slashing ability to compliment his perimeter game. His reputation is also one of a hard worker willing to come in and play immediate defense, but his slight frame could cause some problems on that end of the court.

Joey Hauser, senior forward/center

Hauser is forecast by Torvik to be the team’s top returning contributor from last year. After playing at Marquette as a freshman in ‘18-’19 and sitting out the next season as a transfer, Hauser started 16 games for the Spartans last year, proving an above-average rebounder who can efficiently score both around the basket and from the perimeter. Despite his height, he offers very little rim protection and may not be an ideal defender to use against David McCormack.

Tyson Walker, junior guard

Walker transferred from Northeastern after a great season in the mid-major ranks last year. Albeit against weaker competition, Walker scored 20+ points eight times in just 19 games last year, eclipsing 30 on two of those occasions. What remains to be seen with Walker is how he’ll adjust to playing against the taller, longer teams he’s bound to face with his new team, as he stands just 6 feet tall.

It’s worth noting that in four games against the KenPom top 100 last year, he averaged just under 16 points per game on 12-29 (41%) shooting inside the arc. In a normal year his height might limit him in this matchup, but the Jayhawks have several shorter point guards as well, so he has some potential for a bigger scoring night.

Prediction

The line on this game sits at Kansas -4. That may seem low considering where Michigan State is coming from, but Izzo picked up some solid talent in the offseason, and we saw in the exhibition game that Kansas may take some time to look like a polished product. Still, I do think MSU’s reliance on new pieces fitting together may hurt them playing a more experienced, higher ranked squad in a major neutral venue on national television. I like the Jayhawks to cover, albeit slightly. I’ll go with Kansas 75, Michigan State 68.