Michigan State battles Kentucky in clash of basketball titans in New York City


Cassius Winston and Tom Izzo/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

Trent Balley, Men's basketball beat reporter

The rubber hits the road in a monumental fashion as the No. 1 Michigan State Spartans take on No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats at Madison Square Garden. Here are some storylines and predictions as the Big Apple welcomes what should be an epic showdown to start the men’s college basketball season.

Tale of the tape

The Spartans return three starters, which includes senior point guard and 2018-19 Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston, sophomore wing Aaron Henry and junior center Xavier Tillman. Michigan State finished 2018-19 with a Final Four loss to Texas Tech.

The projected starting lineup is Winston at point guard, freshman Rocket Watts at shooting guard, Aaron Henry and sophomore Thomas Kithier at the forward spots with Tillman in the middle at center.

The Wildcats return only one starter in point guard Ashton Hagans, losing all others to professional basketball. A starting lineup projection is still slightly fuzzy, but there’s a few players in particular that are expected to shoulder much of the load.

Senior big man Nate Sestina will suit up for Kentucky after averaging 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game a season ago with Bucknell. He was also a member of the 2017-18 team that lost to the Spartans in round one of the NCAA tournament.

Elsewhere, sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley played 18.5 minutes per game for the Wildcats last season and averaged 5.2 points per game. Freshman forward Keion Brooks was a five-star recruit and will likely start as well.

Key matchups

The most compelling matchup in this game is clearly Winston versus Hagans at point guard. Winston is coming off a highly impressive campaign, averaging 18.8 points and 7.5 assists per game as a junior. 

Hagans, on the otherside, averaged only 7.7 points and 4.3 assists last season but is expected to receive a much more featured role in 2019-20. Nonetheless, both will be primary or secondary scoring options for their respective teams.

Other than floor generals, Sestina and Tillman will have their hands full with each other at center. Both will most likely record more double-doubles than not this season, as they’ve established position as respected big men in the NCAA.

As for the coaches, this game will feature two Naismith Hall of Famers in Tom Izzo of the Spartans and John Calipari of the Wildcats. Since Calipari joined Kentucky in 2009, the series score between him and Izzo is 1-1. Calipari also got the better of Izzo’s Spartans in the Sweet 16 of the 2008 NCAA tournament as coach of the Memphis Tigers. 


The Wildcats have plenty of holes to fill if they want to reach their 2018-19 average of 75.8 points per game. Hagans was Kentucky’s sixth highest scorer from last season, and is the highest returning scorer this season. That might not bode well for Calipari’s squad, especially early in the season against a defense as prided as Izzo’s.

The Spartans, on the other hand, have a pair of double-digit scorers returning in Winston and Tillman. Continuity is on Michigan State’s side.

Prediction: Michigan State 74, Kentucky Wildcats 64

You can follow Trent Balley on Twitter @TBal91 and contact him by emailing him at [email protected]