Michigan State vs Kentucky. The Spartans are ranked second just days into the college basketball season, while the Wildcats' 2-0 start has kept them the top-ranked team. Come next Monday, expect the Spartans to be in the top slot, with the Wildcats moving down a few spots.
In the Wildcats' first two games, they have been nothing short of spectacular. They first defeated UNC-Asheville 89-57 on Friday night, before beating Northern Kentucky 93-63 two days later. In less than four days' time, UK will be back on the court though this time on a bigger stage.
Chicago's United Center will be the venue in which these two elite programs will match up. Michigan State has only played once thus far, defeating McNeese State 98-56. Needless to say, Tuesday night's bloodbath should be a much more challenging test than either team has faced to this point.
Kentucky starts four freshmen and one sophomore, while Michigan State figures to have two seniors, a junior and two sophomores on the court at tipoff. In MSU's season-opener, sophomore Denzel Valentine got the nod over junior Branden Dawson after he was late for a team meeting.
As it stands, the starting lineup matchups are as follows:
C: Matt Costello vs. Willie Cauley-Stein, Edge: UK
PF: Adreian Payne vs. Julius Randle, Edge: MSU
SF: Branden Dawson vs. James Young, Edge: MSU
SG: Gary Harris vs. Aaron Harrison, Edge: MSU
PG: Keith Appling vs. Andrew Harrison, Edge: UK
Of the five starting matchups, I give the Spartans the edge in three and the Wildcats the edge in two. Cauley-Stein is not a big-time scorer, though neither is Costello. Defensively however, Cauley-Stein is a true difference maker. In two games, he has grabbed 17 rebounds, retrieved four steals and blocked four shots. Expect Costello, Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling to platoon at the 5-spot tonight.
The power forward matchup is the most intriguing, as arguably both team's best players start there. In his first two collegiate games, Randle is averaging a remarkable 22.5 points and 14.5 rebounds. Payne double-doubled with 10 points and 10 boards in Game 1. Randle is a potential No. 1 pick in June's draft, but Payne has expanded his game leaps and bounds since arriving at Michigan State.
As a freshman, he could do little else than dunk the basketball. Now, Payne can shoot from the outside, dribble, pass and defend. Randle is an athletic left-handed freshman who can do it all as well, but in this case I give the nod to the player who is three years Randle's senior.
Dawson has seemed to be forgotten after a freshman season that landed him on the All-Freshman team in 2011-12. After tearing his ACL just prior to the Big Ten tournament, Dawson recovered miraculously quickly and missed no time last season. He struggled down the stretch a year ago but started this year with a 12-point, 12-rebound, five assist double-double effort.
Young is averaging 8.0 points and 2.5 rebounds early on in his collegiate career, though struggling with a 28 percent shooting percentage. Young has hit one of the most spectacular shots you'll ever see in an exhibition contest, though not intentionally and in his own basket. Should Dawson reappear in the starting five tonight, I give him the edge here.
Harris is the Big Ten's Preseason Player of the Year and for good reason. After winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012-13, Harris flirted with the idea of leaving for the NBA before deciding to come back to school. Harris was one of three Spartans to score a double-double on Friday, as he compiled a stat line of 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Harris, a former high school wide receiver, has a stronger build than most shooting guards. He can beat you off the dribble or from the perimeter. He will be matched up against another sturdy 2-guard in Aaron Harrison, who is averaging 13.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists thus far. Though both are primed to play in the NBA, potentially after this season, the more experienced Harris gains the edge.
Keith Appling has had his ups and downs in East Lansing. A four-year starter, Appling started alongside former Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas as a freshman. Appling made the switch to shooting guard after Appling graduated, but had another former Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green on his side as a sophomore. Last season, Appling struggled with decision making, especially late in close contests.
Appling's talent has never been questioned and he has come up big before, such as last season's dagger in the Champions Classic over Kansas. Despite this, I have to give the edge to one of Kentucky's highly touted freshmen class. Andrew Harrison, twin of Aaron, is averaging 10.5 points and 3.5 assists and will look to get all of his freakishly talented teammates the ball in places to score on Tuesday night.
Despite Kentucky's No. 1 ranking, Michigan State is actually the favorite in Tuesday night's affair. This isn't meant to knock John Calipari's talented youth, rather to show how good Michigan State really is. Michigan State also has depth in the form of Travis Trice, Valentine, Gauna, Schilling and Alvin Ellis.
Every four-year player under Tom Izzo at Michigan State has reached a Final Four at some point in their career. To this point, seniors like Payne and Appling have yet to reach that promised land. Beating Kentucky tonight would go a long way to helping MSU get back over the hump.
While it's almost a certainty that Kentucky has more future NBA players on their roster, the experience and coaching aspects of the game are certainly in Michigan State's favor. In an early-season matchup, I like the Spartans to win a close one.