Tuesday marks the 6th annual State Farm Champions Classic and pits two bluebloods, Michigan State and Kentucky, against each other for only the second time in tournament history.
The last time these two met it was a matchup of the top two teams in the nation. The reigning champion Wildcats marched into the United Center in Chicago looking like a juggernaut. Led by freshmen Julius Randle, James Young and the Harrison Twins, among others, they seemed primed to make another deep NCAA run. On that night, however, the Spartans combination of experience and talent — notably the backcourt of Keith Appling and Gary Harris — helped them knock off UK, 78-74, and launch MSU to the top of the polls. I was there and it was AWESOME.
Kentucky is loaded yet again this year and, while they aren’t the prohibitive favorite — that would be Duke who takes on Kansas Tuesday as well — look like a team that has Final Four potential. MSU on the other hand is left to answer a few questions after a last second loss to Arizona in Hawaii.
1. Expectations are always sky-high in Lexington and this year appears to be no different. Is anything short of a National Championship a disappointment?
I wouldn't go as far as to call this season championship or bust, but it's definitely Final Four or bust. It takes so much just to make it that far, and then it become more of a toss-up as to who wins it. It also helps temper expectations a bit that UK has been in the 2-4 range in preseason polls, which is fair. This team has the potential to be great, but there's no guarantee it happens, and it's very possible they go into Match as the third/fourth/fifth-best team in college basketball.
2. John Calipari has had some incredible recruiting classes since going to UK, including this years five man class. Where does this group rank among his best?
It's far too early to tell. The class he landed that included Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and Karl-Anthony Towns was one of his 'worst' in terms of recruiting rankings, but it ended up being one of, if not his best.
But we didn't really see that until guys like Towns and Booker were becoming NBA stars as rookies. We won't know how great this class is until they've had a year or two in the pros. It's just not fair to judge how good this class, or any for that matter, based on how they perform as college freshman.
Saying that, the recruiting rankings indicate this is arguably the best Calipari has assembled, and maybe one of the best any college program has ever had.
3. Which of the freshmen do you expect the have the biggest impact?
De'Aaron Fox. He's the perfect point guard to have take over as a freshman. He already plays like a veteran with how well he controls the offense and how hard he plays on defense. He rarely forces his offense and is willing to dominate a game as a passer just as much as he is scoring.
4. Is there a player flying under the radar that MSU fans should keep an eye out for?
Isaac Humphries. The big Australian didn't get much preseason attention outside of Lexington, but he's been a nice presence in the paint through two games. He's played just 25 minutes through two games, but he's shown he can play at a high level as UK's primary center if need be.
I also bring up Isaac because of Michigan State's painfully-thin frontcourt. If UK makes it a point to get Isaac the ball in the post, he could be in for a big game Tuesday night.
5. Kentucky has a massive height advantage on MSU in this one, how do you think they'll go about exploiting it?
In addition to Isaac, watch out for Bam Adebayo. He's a beast on the boards who will pull down 10+ boards in this game with ease 'if' he's not in foul trouble. If he is, Isaac should have a big game in the paint, and he's far more offensively sound than Bam at this stage, but not as good of a defender.
Where MSU goes small a lot, I think Bam plays a lot and has a big game as long as long as he avoids bad fouls. He'll have a tough time taking advantage of the size advantage though since he's been struggling at the rim thus far. Most of his points are coming off lob dunks and from the free-throw line.
And frankly, UK has been running very little offense for their bigs thus far. It's been guards De'Aaron Fox, (22), Malik Monk (24), and Isaiah Briscoe (25) all getting 20+ field goal attempts thus far, while Humphries (12) and Bam (10) have combined for just 22.
This may end up being a game where UK doesn't take as much advantage of MSU's size issue as they should, which is part of why I expect this to be a close game.
This is a bad matchup for MSU offensively where so much of their offense comes from their guards. UK's defense has been good on the perimeter thus far (held its first two opponents to a combined 9-of-40 (22.5%) shooting from three-point range), and while it's a one-game sample size, MSU likes to jack up threes (8-of-25 vs Zona), so points should be hard to come by for the Spartans.
Still, Miles Bridges is a star who will keep MSU in this one. If veterans Eron Harris and Tum Tum Nairn have big games, this game should come down to the wire, but I see UK pulling off a 68-63 win.