PHOTO (Duke Athletics): Duke junior Wendell Moore returns for his third Champions Classic, but this time the games are played in a packed arena.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
College football openers played before packed stadiums reminded us what we missed a year ago, but this week college basketball does its season debuts one step better.
The State Farm Champions Classic, an annual double-header gathering four elite programs in the same arena in two head-to-head matchups, returns to a packed stage at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night in New York.
Duke and Kentucky square off in the nightcap at 9:30 p.m. ET after the opener matching Michigan State and Kansas meet in the 7 p.m. game. The Blue Devils are ranked No. 9 in the preseason poll, Kentucky No. 10, Kansas No. 3 and Michigan State is unranked.
A year ago, the Champions Classic, founded in 2011, had to be rescheduled at separate venues without fans due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Michigan State defeated Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, while Kansas beat Kentucky at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
But the double-header atmosphere, including a sellout crowd, is back this year. Duke junior swingman Wendell Moore has been around long enough to experience the 2019 Champions Classic atmosphere when the double-header also was played at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s great place to play basketball,” Moore said. “That’s how you want it. The game is already sold out. You want 20,000 people in there rooting for you or against you. There’s no better environment like it.”
Moore, a 6-foot-5, 213-pounder, is a third-year starter along with two returning starters, sophomore center Mark Williams (7-0, 242) and sophomore guard Jeremy Roach (6-1, 172). In the Winston-Salem State exhibition game, they were joined in the top five by two projected one-and-done players, Paolo Bancher (6-10, 250), the ACC preseason Player of the Year, and Trevor Keels (6-4, 221).
However, one common element college basketball shares with football openers are vastly revamped rosters, thanks to the NCAA transfer portal’s new era of mobility. Reshaped rosters has been in addition to Duke and Kentucky rapidly turning over their rosters in the one-and-done era.
Two Duke graduate transfers are Theo John (6-9, 242) from Marquette and Bates Jones (6-8, 222) from Davidson. John played 17 minutes against Winston-Salem State, scoring six points with one rebound and three assists. Jones played 18 minutes, hitting 2-of-4 three-point field goals to finish with 11 points.
Duke also returns senior Joey Baker (6-6, 206) and has a potential third one-and-done with A.J. Griffin (6-6, 200), a top 10 pick.
Kentucky features two one-and-doe recruits with Daimion Collins (6-9, 205) projected and TyTy Washington (6-3, 180) in addition to three transfers that started in the exhibition game against Miles College.
Sahvir Wheeler (5-9, 180) transferred in from Georgia and Kellan Grady (6-5, 205) transferred in from Davidson, while Oscar Tshiebwe (6-9, 255) joined the Wildcats at midseason last year from West Virginia.
“It’s really tough because obviously we don’t know what they do as a team yet,” Moore said. “We’ve watched a couple o their exhibition games, just like they have with us. So, really, this being both teams’ first game against an opponent makes it tougher to scout because we don’t know what they’re going to do. We can know their personnel from what they’ve shown at other schools, but this is there first time playing together as a team.”
But, of course, Kentucky has reached the same conclusions as the Wildcats prepare to face the Blue Devils in New York before a packed arena.
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