Michigan State vs Kentucky: Spartans Get No. 1 Ranking but Keep Chip on Shoulder

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Michigan State vs Kentucky: Spartans Get No. 1 Ranking but Keep Chip on Shoulder
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor
Gary Harris and MSU toppled Cal's Cats.

Tom Izzo fights the giddy feeling. 

And for the past 19 years as Michigan State's head coach, he's won that battle more times than he's lost. He's done a great job of playing Mr. Never Satisfied. 

However, Tuesday night, Izzo's No. 2-ranked Spartans—sure to be No. 1 next week—knocked off the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats 78-74 during Game 1 of the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago.

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The Spartans blew a 15-point lead during the second half of their nationally televised bout. They were outmanned during key stretches by coach John Calipari's young all-stars, who showed maturity and resolve by evening the score, 66-66. 

But Michigan State still won. 

The old Izzo would have said something such as "We weren't good enough tonight." He would have probably mentioned the 27 fouls, seven turnovers and dozens of bricks fired in the final 20 minutes.

Being bullied 45-30 on the glass certainly would have caused him to erupt.

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But he didn't.

He simply couldn't contain the excitement of clipping Cal. 

"I got a real good offensive team, I think," Izzo said during a postgame interview with the ESPN Game Day panel. "And Gary (Harris) didn't get to play as well, I think, in the second half. We're going to get better too, you know. They're going to get a lot better, but we're going to get better too."

The Wildcats' late charge was led by 5-star frosh Julius Randle. The 6'9", 250-pound enforcer was the No. 2 prep player of 2013, per 247Sports. He shot a paltry 1-for-5 in the first half, but scored 23 of his game-high 27 in the second. 

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Yes, Izzo does have a good offense.

Grabbing 13 rebounds, Randle handled an All-Big Ten-worthy frontcourt quite well. Not a bad job during the first of potentially two meetings this season. 

"You have to give him a lot of credit," Izzo said. "He did do a great job. But you have to give us some blame. We had some weird lineups in there. We didn't double where we were supposed to. But he's a beast down there, you know."

Izzo compared Randle's brawn to that of Chris Webber's, saying the Kentucky youngster was as strong as the former Fab Five star. 

"What I did like about him, he gritted his teeth and tried to put that team on his back for a while," Izzo said. "That shows some toughness for a freshman."

It wasn't gruff old Tom on Tuesday night, but don't mistake his rare mood for weakness. The Spartans are on a collision course with a national championship. And it's entirely likely that Izzo knows that this team is the one to do it.

Izzo wasn't beaming for the sake of beaming. If anything, he got a true glimpse at the high end of the scale in mid-November and wasn't afraid to let it show. 

Fair enough. Maybe he already knows what the rest will find out in March. 

 

The "Fight" Quality

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Boxing gloves, anyone?

Vintage Izzo teams became vintage because of heart. 

In the past, seniors have supplied that department. This year, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are the ones who have to fulfill a destiny. 

Each four-year player under Izzo has been to the Final Four. The Spartans haven't been there since 2010, just months before acquiring Appling and Payne. Can't break a streak, and it's safe to assume that to be a team-wide priority. 

Driving hard to the basket, sophomore Denzel Valentine threw up a right-handed floater in the lane in attempt to put away the game. The shot bounced off the side of the rim, but junior Branden Dawson was at the right place at the right time, putting back the miss for the final make of the game. 

That was a gut play. Baskets like that are scored by those who see something slipping away but refuse to let it escape. 

 

Experience

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Keith Appling scored a team-high 22 points.

For the most part, Appling played the role of a seasoned point guard. Other than a late turnover, he secured the ball to satisfaction. The late cough-up at 1:11 snapped a 15-minute streak without a turnover, and it allowed Kentucky to cut the lead to 76-72. 

Payne stepped forward in an effort to keep Randle from doing more damage. During his postgame interview with ESPN, Payne noted Randle's quick first step and said, "He's a guy you have to double."

Again, that's experience taking hold. 

Recognizing a threat, Payne made adjustments to tilt the balance. He helped Dawson hold Willie Cauley-Stein, a sophomore 7-footer, to five points (2-for-4 FG). Tuesday night wasn't Payne's first go-round; he said there is work to do. But he's proud of his teammates' efforts thus far. 

ESPN analysts joked about Harris being an upperclassman. Due to the nature of today's college superstar, it's a wonder that the sophomore is still in school. He could have been a lottery pick in the 2013 draft. He'll just have to wait until 2014. 

Not a big deal. Harris dreams of a national title. The NBA can wait. In the meantime, he can continue putting up 20 against NBA-level talent on collegiate stages. 

 

Co-Sign For This Team

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

Izzo doesn't throw around all-time terminology everyday. He may pay homage to the Flintstones or compare a recruit to a former great, but seldom does he ever go "there."

During a later clip of a televised presser, Izzo thanked Magic Johnson, Morris Peterson and Jason Richardson for making the trip to Chicago. 

And then, he dropped a line for the ages: "Our program needed a program win. That was one."

Directly after the win, he said the following to College Game Day: "This is one of the greatest nights in basketball. Sure we won, but I would have said the same if we lost."

ABC 12's Ryan Slocum asked a question that has only one right answer. And he got it when he asked about two of Izzo's mainstays. 

They know what's important. Championships are more likely for those who see the bigger picture.

 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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