In the first game of the much-anticipated Champions Classic, Kentucky and Michigan State clash in a showdown between the top two teams in the nation.
This is the first time that No. 1 has faced No. 2 in the AP polls since Kentucky's current head coach suffered his first loss of the 2007-08 season when Tennessee upset Memphis on Feb. 23, 2008.
Can Tom Izzo and the Spartans put an early end to the debate over whether Kentucky can go 40-0 this season? Or will Kentucky maintain the dream of breaking college basketball's 38-year streak without an undefeated team?
Here's the preview of Tuesday night's 7:30 p.m. ET game, which can be seen on ESPN. Included is the key matchup to watch, a few X-factors and a prediction of the final score.
|PG||Andrew Harrison (6'6")||Keith Appling (6'1")|
|SG||Aaron Harrison (6'6")||Gary Harris (6'4")|
|SF||James Young (6'6")||Denzel Valentine (6'5")|
|PF||Julius Randle (6'9")||Matt Costello (6'9")|
|C||Willie Cauley-Stein (7'0")||Adreian Payne (6'10")|
|Bench||Alex Poythress (6'8")||Travis Trice (6'0")|
|Bench||Marcus Lee (6'9")||Branden Dawson (6'6")|
|Bench||Dakari Johnson (7'0")||Alex Gauna (6'9")|
With such a high-profile matchup, it isn't hard to find pregame reaction. Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press is calling this a battle between run-and-gun and one-and-done.
Coach Calipari sounded off on the contrast in experience between the two teams, telling Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader (via the Detroit Free Press), "Playing teams (like Michigan State) this early is not fair for my team...we walk in and everybody else is more experienced."
According to Rexrode, Coach Izzo responded to Calipari's pity party line with this: "I agree, I think he should forfeit. If Johnny doesn't want to play it, I'll take a win."
With eight regulars who are 6'6" or taller, Kentucky has quite the size advantage. Michigan State will need to rely heavily on the three-point shooting of Appling, Harris, Trice and Valentine.
Aside from a fight for the top spot in the polls, this pairing is something of a litmus test for the battle between age and beauty.
With a freshman-heavy Kentucky winning the 2012 national championship, there's no longer much of an argument to be made against the one-and-done model being able to create a team that can cut down the nets in March.
However, if this Kentucky team of mostly freshmen can win a mid-November game against a top-ranked Michigan State team relying almost entirely on returning players, where's the value in team chemistry and veteran leadership?
If there are no growing pains in Kentucky's quest to reach full potential this season, why wouldn't every coach take a page from John Calipari's playbook and start aggressively recruiting an entire team of players who will leave after one season?
In the green corner, coach Tom Izzo has a career winning percentage of .713 and has averaged better than 24 wins per season in his 18 previous years at Michigan State. He has taken his team to the NCAA tournament in 16 consecutive seasons, reaching 11 Sweet 16s, five Final Fours and winning one national championship.
Izzo stresses rebounding so emphatically that he even has a rebounding video for sale. The Spartans perennially finish with a positive rebounding margin and had the 10th-best margin in the nation last season.
In the blue corner, coach John Calipari has won nearly 83 percent of his games since arriving at Kentucky before the 2009-10 season. Prior to last season's disappointing showing in the NIT, Calipari had taken his team at least as far as the Elite Eight in six of the previous seven seasons—though, Memphis' run to the 2008 NCAA Championship Game was later vacated.
Calipari popularized the dribble-drive-motion offense first developed by Pepperdine's Vance Walberg. Calipari calls it "Princeton on steroids," and it has clearly been difficult for opponents to defend over the bulk of the past decade.
Not to be outdone by Izzo's rebounding video, Calipari has written three books of his own.
Adreian Payne vs. Julius Randle
Payne proved toward the end of last season that he can hold his own against highly touted big men. In two games against Cody Zeller (Indiana), Payne averaged 17.5 points and eight rebounds. Facing Mason Plumlee (Duke) in the NCAA tournament, he put up 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Even though the Spartans lost each of those three games, it was enough for Payne to sneak onto the first team of a few of our preseason All-American teams.
Is he ready, willing and able to go to war with a freshman averaging 22.5 points and 14.5 rebounds per game?
If this head-to-head matchup is decided entirely in the paint, Randle is the overwhelming favorite to dominate. But if Payne steps out behind the arc and pulls Randle away from the lane, it both gives him a better chance to outproduce Randle and gives the rest of the Spartans a better chance to put points on the board by opening up the floor.
They would still have to contend with either Dakari Johnson or Willie Cauley-Stein in the paint, but if Randle is allowed to live down there too, they might as well just let Gary Harris shoot three-pointers all night and hope for the best.
X-Factor No. 1: Foul trouble
Let's go ahead and assume that Michigan State is a little more disciplined than UNC-Asheville and Northern Kentucky, but the fact remains that Kentucky is averaging 42 free-throw attempts per game this season.
Julius Randle has been the biggest benefactor of all the whistles, converting 21 of his 27 free throws. If Kentucky's primary post presence can get Adreian Payne and Matt Costello into early foul trouble, this game could be over by halftime.
Michigan State does run deeper than most teams in the country in terms of quality reserve players, but the Spartans don't have much size coming off the bench. If Payne and Costello are forced to ride the pine, Kentucky should overindulge on points in the paint.
X-Factor No. 2: Keith Appling's assist-to-turnover ratio
Michigan State's starting point guard recorded more than two assists in just two of his final 13 games of the 2012-13 season.
Standing at least five inches shorter than each member of Kentucky's eight-man rotation, Appling is going to need to create shots for his teammates in lieu of forcing his own shots.
X-Factor No. 3: James Young's shooting
Young is expected to eventually blossom into one of the most prolific small forwards in the nation, but he hasn't shown it yet this season. He has made just five of his 18 field-goal attempts and figures to spend much of the game blanketed by Branden Dawson.
With a grand total of five rebounds, two assists, one block, no steals and three turnovers through two games, Young hasn't been worth much on the floor unless his shots are falling.
In the end, Kentucky is just too fast and too physical for Michigan State to handle.
Keith Appling is the only returning Spartan who averaged more than 2.5 made free throws per game in 2012-13, and it was already mentioned on a previous slide that he'll look like a molehill among mountains if and when he tries to get to the rim.
Against a less-imposing-than-Kentucky McNeese State on Friday night, Michigan State only managed to attempt five free throws.
As has been the story in Duke games for the past several decades, if the three-pointers are falling for Michigan State, anything can happen. Maybe we could count on that if the Spartans were playing at home, but in a neutral-court setting, the smart money is on the team that can control the paint and the pace of the game.
Prediction: Kentucky wins 78-71.
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