After a long offseason Kansas Jayhawks basketball (0-0) finally returns on Tuesday night when they’ll take on the Duke Blue Devils at the Champions Classic.
Speaking in terms of recent history, KU is in great shape heading into this matchup. The Jayhawks have won there last three Champions Classic games (including a victory over Duke in 2016) and have knocked off Duke in their last three head-to-head meetings. Just like tonight’s game, those have all been big-time matchups, too, including two Champions Classic battles and an Elite Eight game.
Both teams enter the game with similar descriptions as they usually do: Kansas is led by a couple experienced, talented veterans with a plethora of supporting role players and a few quality freshman. Duke, meanwhile, is loaded yet again with blue chip recruits and a handful of veterans expected to steer the young guys through the start of their college experience. There’s a good reason why this game is a matchup of the third- and fourth-ranked teams in the country.
Sophomore point guard Devon Dotson is back for the Jayhawks in 2019-20 after testing the NBA draft waters following last year, and he’s bringing a ton of hype with him. He’s listed on the Wooden and Naismith Award preseason watch lists and is tasked with leading a KU team looking to rebound from a relative down season a year ago. Dotson will have plenty of veteran help in the backcourt this year, with sophomore Ochai Agbaji and junior Marcus Garrett both taking on even bigger roles than they’ve had before. The respective athleticism and defensive prowess those two bring are both important elements for this year’s group. That’s before even getting to a strong bench unit, one of the deepest in country.
Down low the story is senior center Udoka Azubuike, the preseason Big 12 player of the year and another Wooden and Naismith award name to watch. He has some shortcomings built into his game at this point, like his inability to move outside the paint effectively or shoot free throws. However, Azubuike presents a massive size mismatch for nearly every team in the country given both his height and natural width. He’s the focal point of a talented and experienced group of bigs, a group with enough depth that fan favorite and glue guy Mitch Lightfoot is able to redshirt this season. Get ready for a lot of classic Bill Self high-low action this season, mixed in with KU’s more recent excellence running with four-guard lineups.
The most shocking thing about Duke’s offseason is that the Blue Devils only finished with the nation’s third-best recruiting class, per 247Sports. That’s the Blue Devils’ lowest class ranking in the 247Sports composite since finishing ninth in 2013, and it snapped a streak of three straight seasons with the top class in the country. That’s somewhat crazy to consider, even for a blue blood. This year’s youth movement for Duke features four prospects among the top 40 in the country, headlined by 6-foot-10 center Vernon Carey. What makes this particular matchup personal is that several of these freshmen were also heavily recruited by Kansas.
Sophomore guard Tre Jones is the best and most important veteran back for the Blue Devils, as he’ll be tasked with finding away to get the one ball to every playmaker. Like Dotson, he also took a look at the NBA draft this offseason before coming back to school. If he’s improved his own scoring ability to go along with his distribution skills he’ll easily be one of the best point guards in the country. Other veterans to look out for with Duke are seniors Javin DeLaurier and Jack White, two bona fide role players but ones who could be pressed into service should the freshman group struggle more than anticipated.
What will the do at the 4 spot? Kansas is exceptionally deep this year both inside and outside, but finding the right rotation of bigs is going to be vital to the Jayhawks’ success. Junior forward Silvio de Sousa hasn’t developed enough of an outside game yet to effectively complement Azubuike’s game around the rim, which means those two can clog the paint too much. Sophomore forward David McCormack can step back and hit from 15 feet, and he got the start against Pittsburg State last Thursday to see how he and Azubuike would play off of each other. The problem with both de Sousa and McCormack is the ability to guard the perimeter, which neither has shown ability to do consistently. This means that the Jayhawks will likely be forced to go with four guards for much of Tuesday’s game, which they certainly can do, but it does sideline some of their biggest impact players in terms of matchups. This will be a key question in New York and throughout the early part of the season.
Can Jones win the point guard matchup? Arguably the most exciting, high-profile one-on-one matchup in this contest is Dotson versus Jones, two point guards who have received plenty of national attention entering the year. As a freshman, Jones was facilitating to an insanely talented group including Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett while still carving out a niche for himself. He’s got plenty of good players around him this year too, but as a veteran now he needs to take on more responsibility. If he outplays Dotson a Duke win becomes far more realistic.
Agbaji. The sophomore superathlete worked on his shooting consistency during the offseason and it looked like the work paid off in a pair of exhibition games. The competition was obviously weak for those, but he showed as a freshman that he can make big plays about quality competition. Dotson and Azubuike are obviously going to be the focal points for the Jayhawks, but Agbaji offers the best athleticism on the team, something crucial against the bevy of elite recruits Duke has rostered. With senior guard Isaiah Moss not expected to play due to his lingering hamstring issues, KU needs another shooting threat. Agbaji is the best candidate for that role.
Matthew Hurt. The freshman power forward was heavily recruited by KU and was considered a Jayhawks lean for the better part of a year before eventually committing to Duke. He offers size and can stretch the floor from the four, to the point where he even saw some time at the three during exhibition play. That could be a matchup nightmare for Kansas if he’s able to shoot it effectively and work the perimeter. In particular, when the Jayhawks roll with two big men it will be challenging to get Hurt off his game on the arc.
Consider yourself lucky if you took this line when it first opened, because KU was initially +2. Duke obviously has a massive amount of talent, but in terms of skill, continuity and matchups right now, Kansas is the better team on paper.