MSU set to take on top-ranked Kansas in Champions Classic

The Champions Classic is a four-team event that has, officially or unofficially, rung in a new college basketball season since its 2011 inception. 2018 is no different. Four top-10 teams travel to Indianapolis to kick off the 2018-19 campaign. No. 10 Michigan State clashes with No. 1 Kansas; the second matchup features No. 2 Kentucky and No. 4 Duke.

The Spartans are 3-4 all-time in the event but hold a 2-0 record over the Jayhawks. They’re winless in games against a top-ranked opponent – a task they’ll be up against tonight.

Michigan State’s starting lineup isn’t finalized, as head coach Tom Izzo has yet to decide between redshirt senior Kenny Goins and sophomore Xavier Tillman. Goins got the nod against Northern Michigan in MSU’s exhibition against the Wildcats. Most signs are pointing toward Tillman coming off the bench. At MSU media day, Izzo said he’d likely go with Goins to keep the big men out of trouble, and he likes the energy Tillman brings off the bench. But until the starting five take the court, it remains a coin-flip.

Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward round out the starting five. This group has something MSU lineups haven’t had much of the last couple of years: experience.

Winston, a junior, is a two-year starter that earned a Third-Team All-Big Ten selection last season. He averaged 12.6 points per game, dishing 6.9 assists per contest and shooting 49.7 percent from three-point territory. Winston will be called upon to become more of a leader on the court and will probably see an increase in minutes from 28 last season.

Langford, named a team captain, started in each of MSU’s 35 games a season ago. He averaged 11.7 points in 27 minutes. He’s shown flashes of being someone the Spartans can lean on but has yet to provide steady production. In Izzo’s media availability before the Champions Classic, he said he was anxious to see if the players that are supposed to step up, step up – Langford is one of those guys.

Another player Izzo wants to see perform on the big stage is senior McQuaid. He, along with Langford, are captains for this year’s team. Already three seasons ago, McQuaid debuted in the Champions Classic in 2015. In Chicago, he hit a couple late three-pointers to help Michigan State and the Denzel Valentine-led team to a win over then No. 4 Kansas. McQuaid, like his co-captain, has not performed quite like some have expected throughout his tenure in East Lansing, but he’ll have a chance to show some consistent play as a starter and can attempt an encore of his previous Champions Classic performance.

Nick Ward, back from testing NBA waters, is a junior that is making all the right strides towards improving as a better player and teammate. He led the 2017-18 Spartans in rebounding and was recognized as an All-Big Ten honorable mention by coaches; placed on third-team by media. One thing to keep an eye on: his midrange game and 3-point shooting.

For the Jayhawks, Dedric Lawson and Udoka Azubuike are just two players on a loaded Kansas roster that is creating major preseason buzz.

Lawson sat out last season after transferring from Memphis, but what he accomplished in a Tigers uniform has Jayhawks fans excited. In 2016-17, Lawson grabbed 9.9 boards per game, which ranked No. 19 nationally and led Memphis with 68 blocks. He shined on offense, too, averaging 19.2 points per game and recording 19 double-doubles. His efforts at Memphis didn’t go unnoticed, as he earned American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in 2015-16 and was an All-American Athletic Conference first-teamer his last season as a Tiger.

Azubuike declared for the NBA draft this summer but withdrew his name and opted to return to Kansas. He’s a 7-foot junior who led the nation in field goal percentage last season at 77 percent. He earned himself an All-Big 12 third team selection last season. His size and length are things Izzo and his frontcourt have been preparing for. Foul trouble is something that will hinder Michigan State if they want to hold off Azubuike.

Other players to watch for

Izzo said he was 99 percent sure he wasn’t redshirting freshman Marcus Bingham Jr. If that’s the case, expect to see the 6-foot-11-inch forward’s debut on Tuesday night. During Izzo’s media availability ahead of the season opener, he said Bingham Jr. wasn’t quite ready on the defensive end but ready offensively. Big picture, MSU lacks big-man depth, and despite the lack of experience, Bingham Jr. can still provide some insurance for guys like Goins, Ward and Tillman.

The Jayhawks’ Charlie Moore is another transfer that’ll have an impact for the Jayhawks. Moore played his freshman season at California and acquired a Pac-12 All-Freshman Honorable Mention. He led Cal in assists with 120 and averaged 12.2 points per game. Moore isn’t expected to start but can provide a spark for Kansas off the bench.

Preseason awards/watchlists

Winston is making a name for himself as one of the nation’s best point guards. He was named to the Bob Cousy Award watchlist, along with a preseason All-Big Ten selection.

Ward is listed as a preseason All-Big Ten selection, as well. His name also appears on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Preseason Watch List, an award for college basketball’s best big man.

Lawson was tabbed an Associated Press preseason All-American. He’s also the preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and a preseason All-Big 12 first team selection.

Azubuike is an honorable mention preseason all-Big 12 selection.

Tipoff between MSU and Kansas is scheduled for 7 p.m. EST from Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The game will be televised by ESPN. Radio will be provided by Spartan Sports Network across its 38 affiliates or streamed on