I'd venture to bet that, besides the Final Four, the Champions Classic is the event Tom Izzo is most proud to be a part of.
We like to think of Izzo as MSU's program. After all, most of the program's highs have come under Izzo. But Izzo's going to retire some day, and we'll find out of the program really was just him. Still, an event like the Champions Classic is as much of a validation of the program as the Final Fours. Izzo wants a program in the same breath as the likes of Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, but that comes with decades of success.
Izzo wants a program that will last, and at least three more years of the Champions Classic means three more opportunities for MSU to stand with bluebloods.
In that sense, this game is similar to the last notable game MSU basketball played, the NCAA Tournament loss to Duke. It was an opportunity for MSU get another badge of respect. Some of what I wrote in the Duke preview fits here.
Izzo is 1-6 against Mike Krzyzewski. That takes a toll on a reputation. Yeah, Duke is Duke. But MSU wants to be Duke. Friday's game won't make MSU a better or worse program. But people can name which team eliminated Duke from the tournament for years.
Would a win change MSU's program? No. Especially if it's followed with a loss in the Elite Eight. But it's an opportunity for a little more respect.
MSU doesn't have a history of losing to Kentucky like it did to Duke. Izzo is 4-2 against Kentucky, but never against a John Calipari-coached Kentucky. The only meeting between these coaches was a beatdown from Memphis in the 2008 Sweet 16.
But if MSU beats the No. 1 Wildcats, the Spartans will assume the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 2001, believe it or not. For all the Final Fours, they haven't actually been No. 1 for more than a decade. When you beat No. 1, it's memorable. MSU has only done it one time ever in the regular season — Wisconsin in 2007. When that win can can move you to No. 1, it's even bigger.
A year ago, MSU defeated Kansas in the Champions Classic, but that came after a loss to UConn in Germany. MSU doesn't often win these big nonconference games, and this is the biggest one of all. The 40th-ever regular-season meeting between No. 1 and No. 2, with No. 1 holding a 20-19 record. This is the earliest-ever meeting between No. 1 and No. 2.
"I think this whole week is an advantage to our program," Izzo said Monday, according to the Freep, "that we're in games like this, in a position like this."
It's Izzo's veterans against Calipari's young guns. Prepare the narrative, and whatever happens, appreciate that MSU is in this event and in a 1-vs-2 game.
Now, honestly, it's pretty hard to preview Kentucky because of all the new players. Izzo himself said he would use high school tape to get a judge on players. They've beat up on two KenPom 250+ teams, while MSU destroyed one.
By all accounts, the No. 1 guy is going to be freshman forward Julius Randle, who is averaging 22.5 points and 15 rebounds. Izzo compared him to Chris Webber (save the jokes) and said Monday that Branden Dawson will be matched up with Randle, which surprised me. Randle is 6-foot-9 and very athletic. I figured to see Adreian Payne on him, but I guess we'll see how things shake out.
Elsewhere, Kentucky has the Harrison twins, freshmen guards Aaron and Andrew. Through two games. Aaron is averaging 13 points and three rebounds, while Andrew is at 10.5 points and 3.5 assists. This isn't going to get confusing at all. There's also freshman point guard and Michigan native James Young (8.0 points, 1.0 assists). All three are 6-foot-6, meaning they're some of the biggest guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris will match up with all year. This is where I figured Dawson would be involved. Again, we'll see how things mix and match.
Kentucky loves the dribble-drive offense, and Appling will have to stay in front of Young or a Harrison without getting outphysicaled or by fouling. With Harris healthy, he should be ready to body up, but he's also at a length disadvantage.
With Kentucky's big guards, the rebounding battle in this one is going to be huge, pun maybe intended. I'm expecting both teams to run, so transition defense will also be a key.
Other notable players include sophomore forward Alex Poythress and freshman forward Marcus Lee.
Frankly, I have no idea how this game is going to play out, because none of us knows exactly how Kentucky's young players will respond by actually being matched up with players of equal ability and more experience, something that doesn't often happen for top players in high school/AAU ball. It could be an adjustment, and there's a reason Calipari thinks it's "unfair." But I do know Kentucky is huge and will push MSU's trademark rebounding ability.
We know what we're getting from MSU, not that they don't have faults to discover and fix, but we know basically nothing about Kentucky. That doesn't stop them from having the No. 1 ranking and the target on their backs again.
In the Q&A, I went with a 71-70 MSU win. KenPom gives MSU a 54 percent chance and has a 70-69 MSU win, so this should be a good one. Let's just pray the officials don't decide to use this game to showcase the new fouling rules.
It's an opportunity to immediately live up to some high expectations and set the tone for the rest of the season. Izzo has always been Mr. March, but to consistently be mentioned with the other three teams in Chicago, you need to be a dominant regular season team, too. Here's their chance to make a statement.