Spartans Take On Kentucky in Champions Classic

Nearly 5,000 miles from their previous game, No. 13 Michigan State will suit up against No. 2 Kentucky, their second top 10 opponent of the young season, Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Just four days after their last-second, season-opening loss to No. 10 Arizona, the Spartans will look to rebound against one of the biggest and most intriguing teams in the nation in one of the premier college basketball events of the season, the State Farm Champions Classic. The round-robin event is entering its sixth year with Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, four of the sport’s most revered blue bloods.

Kentucky, also the second “Wildcats” team the Spartans have faced, has gotten out to a quick 2-0 start on the season, coasting by Stephen F. Austin and Canisius by 23 and 24 points, respectively.

Kentucky often garners plenty of attention thanks to head coach John Calipari, whose recruiting has been a topic of conversation ever since he arrived in Lexington in 2009. While many fans across the country don’t have the warmest feelings about his “one-and-done” tactics, he keeps bringing in some of the top prospects each year to what he likes to call his “succeed-and-proceed” system.

Calipari’s recruiting class in 2016 was no different from those in the past; he signed six players, five of whom were labeled as “five-stars” by ESPN, to make up the nation’s No. 2 class, only trailing Duke. Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Wenyan Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones all bring different skills to Calipari’s roster. Fox, Adebayo and Monk all average more than 20 minutes per game, so the Spartans can expect to go against a young lineup.

As has become the norm at Kentucky the last few years, the Wildcats’ roster will be young, but big. The Wildcats have six players taller than 6-foot-9; in contrast, Michigan State’s tallest active player will be freshman center Nick Ward, who is listed at 6-foot-8.

Size was an issue in the Spartans’ first game. Arizona threw three players over 6-foot-10 at the likes of Kenny Goins and Miles Bridges, who are both undersized for their starting positions. Michigan State handled themselves relatively well down low, grabbing just as many rebounds as Arizona (34). Goins tallied eight rebounds while Bridges totaled seven, but on offense, Michigan State did not seem comfortable with getting the ball into the paint.

That will not get easier against Kentucky. The Wildcats are usually one of the leading shot-blocking teams in the country thanks to their size, and the 2016-17 season should be no exception. They average eight blocks per game so far, although their competition was not up to par with Michigan State. Still, look for Kentucky to dominate defensively down low, forcing Michigan State to shoot jump shots.

Michigan State’s guard play will be their best chance of emerging victorious Tuesday. Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe, one of the rare sophomores to stay in Lexington after his freshman year, has emerged as one of the top point guards in the nation and poses a major threat to Tom Izzo’s backcourt. Eron Harris will have to pick up his game after only scoring seven points against Arizona. Tum Tum Nairn will also have to push the ball in transition, because Michigan State’s offense flowed best on Friday when it got out and ran. Once the halfcourt game came into play, Arizona’s size proved to be too much, and it’s very likely Kentucky will play the same way.

Look for a high-scoring game with plenty of transition opportunities for both the Wildcats and the Spartans. The Spartans’ greatest chance of victory lies in the hands of the guards. As fabulous as Miles Bridges is, Tuesday may be the only time his athleticism is matched on the same court. If Harris and Nairn can create in transition, the Spartans can come away with a huge early win.

Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET between the Spartans and Wildcats. Following the game, the latest College Football Playoff committee rankings will be released, followed by tipoff between No. 1 Duke and No. 7 Kansas.