The college basketball regular season may have started for most teams last Friday night, but arguably the most meaningful preconference games of the whole year will be played tonight in Chicago's United Center.
That's when No. 1 Duke faces second-ranked Michigan State in the opening game (yes, opening game) of the seventh annual State Farm Champions Classic (7 p.m., ESPN), with No. 7 Kentucky squaring off against No. 4 Kansas on the same court 30 minutes after MSU-Duke concludes.
Though no college hoops clash in November carries even remotely the same importance of a nonconference football contest in September, these games do matter. In fact, if Michigan State's Spartans can't derail the Dookies tonight, it's not inconceivable to imagine the Blue Devils reaching the NCAA tournament still undefeated in March.
Mike Krzyzewski's 38th Duke team is just that good as it seeks to become the sport's first undefeated national champ since Indiana in 1976. And the Hoosiers had to win only 32 games. The Dookies would have to go 40-0.
Or as Utah Valley coach Mark Pope — a key member of UK's 1996 national champs — said after his team fell 99-69 at Duke on Saturday night, 24 hours after Pope's team threw a scare into the Wildcats at Rupp Arena: "This is a really good Duke team. They're really physical inside, they have a couple of guards who are assassins from the perimeter, they have a point guard that's really a play-making point guard and who kind of has got enough savvy to pick and choose his times."facebook
The Blue Devils are more than really good. They are great and they are overflowing with talent, as witness this past weekend, when they won their first two games against Elon and Utah Valley by an average of 29.5 points, handing their coach the 999th and 1,000th wins of his Duke career.
Merely consider the latest NBA Draft.net big board for next summer's draft. The website projects that Duke freshman big man Marvin Bagley will go third, freshman power forward Wendell Carter eighth and freshman wing Gary Trent Jr. at No. 15. It also has senior guard and widely despised (by the rest of college basketball) Grayson Allen and freshman point guard Trevon Duval both off the board by pick No. 27.
All five. Potential first-rounders. And four of the five are freshmen.
But Michigan State also is really good thanks to the return of sophomore wing Miles Bridges, who would have been a lottery pick in the 2017 draft if he'd gone pro. But he wanted to deliver a special season to Spartans Nation and he still might, though Bagley reclassifying from his natural 2018 class to 2017 made Duke instantly go from Final Four contender to national championship favorite.
Still, the Spartans have not only Bridges but also freshman phenom Jaren Jackson Jr., who's projected as the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft, as well as physical forward Nick Ward and one of college basketball's best names this season: senior point guard "Tum Tum" Nairn.
As for the later game in Chicago, Kansas has one All-America candidate guard in Devonte Graham and a second candidate in Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman, who most expected already to be in the NBA.
Judging by Kentucky's close shaves this past weekend against Utah Valley and Vermont, this would seem to be an easy game for the Jayhawks, as well as a chance to get revenge on their 72-40 Champions Classic loss to Big Blue at the start of the 2014-15 season.
Then again, as Vermont coach John Becker noted late Sunday afternoon following his team's narrow 73-69 loss at Rupp — its first regular-season defeat since a December 2016 loss to Butler — "(Kentucky) is a really talented team and they're going to be a team to be reckoned with for the national championship."
That could be said of any of these four teams. And after six seasons of the Classic, the records are remarkably equal with UK being the only program with a winning record (4-2) in the round-robin format, with Duke and Michigan State at 3-3 and KU standing 2-4 record.
But college basketball is the biggest winner, if only because it is one of the too few times before conference play begins that we get a chance to see the sport's traditional powerhouses square off in the same neutral-court environment where they can face each other come March.
"You cannot play Popcorn State and learn anything," Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the Vermont game. "You've got to play good teams."
By midnight tonight, college basketball fans everywhere will have learned much about just how good these teams are now and can become by March. Or whether everyone but Duke is playing for second.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.