CBB Best Bets: Champions Classic

CBB Best Bets: Champions Classic

This article is part of our College Basketball Picks series.

Adam's Picks

Kansas -4.5 vs. Michigan State (over/under 144 points)

The only team Michigan State has a winning record (2-1) against in this event is Kansas, yet the Jayhawks are significantly higher in preseason metrics and are decent favorites in this matchup. At KenPom, which is often the source for a lot of oddsmakers, Kansas opens the season with the No. 3 ranking compared to 22 for Michigan State. 

While I like Kansas, I think it's getting too much love in this spot. The Jayhawks will be without Jalen Wilson, who averaged close to 12 points and eight boards per game last season. The addition of Remy Martin and Joseph Yesufu definitely helps, but it's yet to be seen what kind of role they'll play after transferring from Arizona State and Drake, respectively. For now, I don't think either of them can replace Marcus Garrett's tenacity on the defensive end.

Given Martin's lack of defense during his time at ASU and both team's penchant for playing fast, I think the over is in play for these teams even though openers are often unpredictable scoring wise. There isn't a heavy advantage on either side of the court, either, which makes MSU at +4.5 the play for me. Of note, I am biased as a MSU graduate.

Still, I think Marcus Bingham and the other bigs have enough to limit David McCormack from dominating the paint, while I don't think Gabe Brown and Max Christie are a downgrade compared to Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun. Even new point guard, transfer Tyson Walker, may be better suited for his team than Martin is for Kansas.

Duke -1 vs. Kentucky (over/under 148 points)

This one is pretty straightforward for me. I think Duke should be a heavier favorite, simple as that. I know Kentucky is getting some love, but it's a completely different team from last season's debacle. There's a chance the Wildcats win the SEC behind newcomers like Sahvir Wheeler, TyTy Washington and Oscar Tshiebwe, but there's a big question about how it will work, especially in this opening matchup.

Duke at least has more returning talent between Jeremy Roach, Wendell Moore and Mark Williams, while Paolo Banchero is getting buzz to be the No. 1 pick in next year's NBA Draft. 

UK has a bit more depth, but I'd rather take the team with more returning starters and a touch of freshman upside. Throw in this being Coach K's last hurrah and I think the Blue Devils will be ready to play. Zion Williamson ripped apart Kentucky a couple years ago and I think this could be a repeat if Banchero is as good as the hype. It will take time for Kentucky to gel, while I think Duke is ready to win now.

Steve's Picks

Akron / Ohio St. Under 145½

Since Chris Holtmann began his tenure as head coach of the Buckeyes, his teams share two traits in common: a slow tempo and an elite defense. Except that didn't happen last year. The Buckeyes ranked No. 82 in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency (per KenPom), easily the worst defensive team since Holtmann took over as coach. Prior to last year, Ohio State had finished in the top-25 in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency in each of the first three seasons under Holtmann. I'm expecting the defense to return to form this season, in part because grad transfer Jamari Wheeler, formerly of Penn State, is now a Buckeye. Wheeler is considered one of the best defensive guards in the Big 10, as evidenced by being named to the Big Ten All-Defensive team. Two times. Another note in favor of the under, both Justice Sueing and Kyle Young, two offensive weapons from last year's Buckeye squad, will likely be limited due to injury concerns (if they even play).

For the other side, Akron's biggest challenge heading into the new season is figuring out how to replace point guard Loren Christian Jackson, who averaged 22.3 points per game last season and also had the second-highest assist rate in conference play. It's fair to say they can't replace him, so the team will no doubt need to adjust, because Loren Christian Jackson used 33.2 percent of his team's possessions last year, the seventh-highest usage rate in the country (per KenPom). Either way, the Zips will have to deal with a significant drop-off at the point guard position in their first game. Add it all up and we have the recipe for an under.

Michigan St. +4½

The new Kansas team looks a lot like last year's Kansas team, which is fine, except bookmakers and KenPom suggest Kansas is now the third-best team in the country (per KenPom preseason adj. efficiency rankings). I have my doubts, mostly because I'm not sure if any of the new additions (i.e. Remy Martin and Joseph Yesufu) will move the needle in the big picture. Martin wasn't very efficient at Arizona State and it's difficult to tell if Yesufu's stats might be inflated from playing in a lower-level conference. If we assume for a moment that Kansas will finish similar to last year's team, No. 27 in KenPom's overall efficiency rankings, then that means Kansas is roughly equal to this year's Michigan State team, ranked No. 22. If this were true, then the spread should be closer to a pick'em, if not favoring Michigan State. 

Now unlike Kansas, Michigan State has a brand new backcourt with somewhat heightened expectations in the form of Northeastern transfer point guard Tyson Walker and freshman Max Christie, who happens to be a McDonald's All-American and Illinois' Mr. Basketball. KenPom expects a modest improvement from Michigan State, and I agree. I'll buy its current pre-season KenPom ranking, for now. One other note benefitting the Spartans, Jalen Wilson, Kansas' leading rebounder last year, will miss the game due to suspension. It could be the difference.

Mercer / Arkansas Over 149½

Known for playing at one of the quickest paces in the country, Eric Musselman-coached teams often find themselves in shootouts, and I'm expecting this won't be any different. Based on preseason rankings, KenPom suggests that the Razorbacks will improve on offense with an efficiency ranking of No. 21 (compared to last year's No. 43 ranking). In any event, the Razorbacks shouldn't have any problem going up against a Mercer defense that's currently projected at No. 225 in the country, per KenPom's adj. defensive efficiency rankings.

On the other side of the court, Mercer displayed drastic offensive improvement in its second year under head coach Greg Gary, who's regarded as an excellent offensive coach after previously serving as Matt Painter's unofficial offensive coordinator at Purdue. The Bears will have some new starters this year, but the offense shouldn't drop off too much assuming the coaching stays sharp. Mercer beat Georgia Tech (83-73) on the road last season, so it certainly knows how to score against a higher level of competition. With a possible shootout on our hands, I'll take the over at a reasonable number.

Duke -1

Projected as a top pick in the 2022 pro draft, Duke freshman Paolo Banchero might be the most talented player in this game. The bluest of blue chips, Banchero led Duke's only exhibition game by scoring 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds in only 20 minutes of playing time. Only time will reveal his true ceiling, but in the meantime it's hard not to take his side at a near pick 'em. Duke is once again loaded, and the Blue Devils still have Coach K, so I'm reaching for reasons to doubt if they'll be ready for tip-off. 

The same can't be said for Kentucky. The Wildcats gave plenty of cause for concern when they trailed at the half to Miles College in their most recent exhibition game. Last year's Kentucky team finished with its worst offensive adj. efficiency ranking in the Calipari era, and it wasn't close. I'm not sure Kentucky's offense can get any worse than last year, but I'm also not sure I can buy them just yet.

CS Bakersfield / UCLA Under 135½

CS Bakersfield was ninth of 11 Big West teams in points per game last year. They aren't returning any double-digit scorers from last year's team. Any way you look at it, CS Bakersfield is in for a rude awakening when they go to Pauley Pavillion.

Bruins head coach Mick Cronin is known for coaching teams to an elite level of defensive play, and while UCLA's defense has shown substantial improvement since Cronin arrived, they still have yet to reach the level of defensive play that Cronin's teams consistently displayed for over a decade at Cincinnati (in terms of Ken Pom's defensive adj. efficiency rankings). This year's team should continue to improve defensively, because not only is the entire starting five returning, but forward Myles Johnson is joining the team after transferring from Rutgers. Johnson is considered among the best defensive players in the country. He had the highest defensive rebounding rate in Big Ten conference games last season, in addition to posting the second-highest block rate in Big Ten play. UCLA's offense might burn us here, but I'm trusting a slow tempo and UCLA's defensive matchup will make this pick a winner.

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Steve Peralta
Graduated from USC in 2012 while interning for ESPN and FOX Sports. Following graduation, I started working full-time for FOX Sports and been there ever since. Been an avid fantasy player for over fifteen years. In addition to my fantasy teams, you'll also find me rooting for the USC Trojans and New York Yankees.
Adam Zdroik
Adam, a 2019, 2018 and 2017 Finalist for FSWA Soccer Writer of the Year, is RotoWire's soccer editor. He also runs RotoWire's Bracketology, as well as writes on other various college basketball content. He has previously worked at ESPN and Sporting Kansas City, and he is a former Streak for the Cash winner and Michigan State graduate.
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