Here we go. Too early for sure, but the first big night of the college hoops year is tonight. These games would likely be much better if played a month from now but, whatever, we have to live with all these marquee matchups before Thanksgiving.

This year’s Champions Classic is perfectly arranged. Duke and Michigan State, #1 vs. #2, two complete and mature teams, will open the night. Then Kansas and Kentucky, #3 vs. #4, one fairly young and one very young team, both with lots of questions, will close it out. Doesn’t mean we’ll get two great games, but at least the matchups make sense this year.

The hard thing about these games is you don’t know what to expect. A week ago, KU struggled with a mediocre D2 team. On Friday they annihilated a mediocre D1 team. Kentucky struggled with a mediocre D1 team Friday and had to hang on for dear life against a solid D1 team Sunday. Of course tonight both teams might come out and shoot 60% and play a breath-taking game, as KU and Indiana did last November. Or it might be a dog of a game. It’s November freaking 14th, we just don’t know.

My expectations for this year’s KU team are fairly low. I must add the “relatively speaking” label to that, of course. Baring significant injuries, they should still be really good, win a lot of games, and have a high seed in March. But it doesn’t feel like a national title contender to me. They are just too short of depth and experience inside and are lacking that NBA prospect that can elevate a decent college team into a great one.

There is potential for that first problem to be eased a bit. Current high school recruit Silvio De Sousa is petitioning the NCAA to join KU after he graduates from the IMG Academy next month. There is some historical precedence for this – from one of the greatest KU players ever coincidentally – but since it hasn’t happened in years I’m not sure whether I should get my hopes up or not.

If high school football players can graduate in December, enroll in college in January and begin practicing right away, why shouldn’t De Sousa be able to play college hoops as soon as he’s graduated from high school? If Marvin Bagley III could decide in July that he was going to reclassify into the class of 2017 and enroll at Duke, how is this any different?

Still, I hate all this reclassifying nonsense. I feel like there need to be hard rules about it, and kids should stick with an academic class. So I’m conflicted.

Anyway, De Sousa could really help KU, even if he’s just another clueless body to plug in down low this year. I have a hard time seeing Udoka Azubuike play more than 25 minutes a night. And once he’s out, that leaves KU Billy Preston, who is 6’10” but is also more of a face-up player,[1] and Mitch Lightfoot, who is only 6’8” and checks in just over 200 lbs, as the Jayhawks inside guys. Even in the age of small ball, that’s going to be a problem.

Fortunately the Jayhawks have Devonté Graham to steady the ship. It’s unrealistic to expect him to go BIFM on the world this year. But through a couple exhibition games and one real game, he looks like he will be a much more productive player without Frank Mason III next to him. He’s still a deadly shooter and has already shown better ability at getting to the rim. There’s going to be a huge weight on that kid’s shoulders this year, and I think he’s up for carrying it.

The rest of the Jayhawks are a bunch of 6’3” – 6’7” athletic dudes. Which I love. Some of my favorite teams have been made up of interchangeable, athletic guys.[2] The question is, do these parts fit together? Can Malik Newman show the pro-potential offense he entered his freshman year at Mississippi State with and add the defense Bill Self wants from him? What is LaGerald Vick’s ceiling? Can he be a poor man’s Josh Jackson, playing all over the court on both ends? Can Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk finally, consistently deliver on all the hype he came with four years ago? Is Marcus Garrett ready to play a huge role as a freshman?[3] When Sam Cunliffe becomes eligible in January, what will he bring to the table?

Can a team this shallow, with a huge hole at backup big man, weather the battles of the 18-game Big 12 season and extend KU’s title streak to 14? I think that’s a huge question right now. And no matter what happens tonight, I don’t know if we’ll have any real answers to any of those questions. Playing a callow Kentucky team on a neutral court in November is nothing like playing Baylor at home on Saturday and then going to Morgantown on Tuesday then having to play Oklahoma on Sunday. Josh Jackson was one of those rare talents who could fill just about any hole on the court. This year’s team doesn’t have someone with his talent or basketball IQ to hide the roster’s gaps.

My expectations are also limited simply because I think Duke, Michigan State, and Arizona are several very clear notches ahead of the pack this year. Sure, someone else could win the title. But those three are the overwhelming favorites.

After two-straight Elite Eight seasons and the BIFM/Josh Jackson experience, and with a monster recruiting class coming in next year, this is looking like a gap season for KU. Thank goodness gap years at KU mean a lot of really fun things are going to happen between now and April.

  1. Prediction: Billy is going to drive KU fans nuts. He’ll be great one night and a disaster the next. Basically the new Carlton Bragg, hopefully without the off-court stuff.  ↩
  2. The classic UNLV teams, 1989 Illinois, to name a couple.  ↩
  3. Prediction: he’s going to become one of my favorite players over his time at KU.  ↩