No. 2 Kentucky was expected to comfortably take care of business against short-handed No. 13 Michigan State on Tuesday night in the Champions Classic because the Spartans lack the size to handle the plethora of big Wildcats.
Instead, it was Kentucky's guards putting on a show against Michigan State at Madison Square Garden, pacing the Wildcats to the 69-48 victory.
It was perhaps the best three-guard performance we've seen in college hoops since the one Isaiah Briscoe, Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis had against Duke one year ago in this same event. Those guards ran circles around the Blue Devils, made Grayson Allen look like a benchwarmer and cruised to the type of win that had us wondering if anyone would be able to beat that team.
Malik Monk was touted in high school for his ability to fly through the air for rim-rattling dunks, but he orchestrated a shooting clinic at the Garden. While the rest of the Wildcats shot a combined 0-of-10 from three-point range, Monk was 7-of-11 en route to a game-high 23 points.
Briscoe wasn't far behind Monk with 21 points of his own. Though he shot just 8-of-18 from the field, the sophomore's stroke looked slightly better and significantly more confident than it was at the end of last season. He drained a pair of mid-range jumpers and shot 5-of-5 from the charity stripe. Not bad for a guy who couldn't make much more than a layup as a freshman.
The third member of the three-headed backcourt monster is De'Aaron Fox. His 12 points don't look like much compared to what his teammates did, but it was still three more than any Spartan scored. He ran the floor like a gazelle, threw down an impressive dunk, doled out six assists and played excellent defense. Of the bunch, he had the most impressive all-around night.
In case you weren't adding it up, that trio accounted for 56 points—eight more than Michigan State scored on the night.
The Spartans currently look nothing like a Top 25 team, but it was still an incredible display from the three guards against a squad that should be a factor in late March.
But can these Wildcats avoid the type of letdown over the next few months that last year's team endured?
Beating up on Duke 12 months ago obscured a lot of weaknesses with that roster. Briscoe was good on that night, but he struggled for most of the season. Big men Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress never fully materialized, leaving the Wildcats as something of a two-and-a-half-man show, with the half being whether or not Derek Willis decided to make an impact.
But Briscoe is already making a compelling case for most improved player in the country. The sophomore is averaging 19.7 points per game while shooting 61.1 percent inside the arc and 75.0 percent from the free-throw line. Sure, it's only three games, but we can't ignore the fact that he's 13 percentage points better from two-point range and 29 percentage points better from the charity stripe than last year.
Briscoe also looks more composed. At times last year, he almost seemed surprised to get the ball and forced up ill-advised shots—not much unlike what Duke's Allen did as a freshman before blossoming into a sophomore stud.
Moreover, when the refs actually let them play, Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel already look better than any of last year's big men did.
As much as the players need to adjust to college basketball's new emphasis on shutting down physical play, the refs also need to adjust to Adebayo being bigger and badder than the opponents he's facing. At least three of his four fouls against Michigan State were the result of him effortlessly moving a guy out of his way. Once he figures out how to better exploit that advantage without drawing a whistle, he'll be almost unstoppable.
And if you think those three guards were good Tuesday night, just wait until Adebayo becomes more of a focal point for opposing defenses. Doubts linger about how consistently this team will shoot from three-point range, but a force in the paint will open up passing and driving lanes that Briscoe, Fox and Monk will repeatedly exploit.
Gabriel may not make a huge impact on offense—he's only averaging 11.5 points per 40 minutes thus far—but he's the momentum-shifter Kentucky desperately lacked in 2015-16. Labissiere and Lee blocked some shots, but there was no Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel or Willie Cauley-Stein who could instantly turn defense into offense while firing up the crowd. That isn't to say Gabriel is the next "Brow," but he's going to come closer to making that kind of impact than anyone did last year.
Fox might be the fastest end-to-end guard in the country, Monk can emphatically finish in transition, and Briscoe is no stranger to running the break in this offense. The more Gabriel can make plays that lead to run-outs, the more Kentucky will be able to play to its strengths.
Before the game, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo told ESPN's sideline reporter that the strategy for beating Kentucky was to be "small, quick and tough." Unfortunately for Izzo, there might not be a quicker and tougher team than the Wildcats.
Ultimately, though, it was only one November game. Kentucky didn't win the 2017 national championship in New York City any more than Michigan State lost it. The Wildcats were even out-rebounded 44-40 by a team they were supposed to destroy in the paint, and they now have a rebounding margin of minus-nine for the season.
But it's impossible not to like both the product and the potential that was on display Tuesday night. You won't hear us asking about their chances of going 40-0 anytime soon, but these Wildcats—after four more months of seasoning—look like the nation's best chance of beating a fully healthy Duke in March or April.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.