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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: No. 4 Kentucky Preview

NCAA Basketball: Armed Forces Classic-Michigan State vs Gonzaga Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Champions Classic Game Info/How to Watch:

Where: Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana

When: Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022 at 7:00 p.m. ET

TV/Streaming (within the U.S.): ESPN

Michigan State (1-1), No. 27 (Kenpom)

After a gut-punching one-point loss to No. 2 Gonzaga — a team that Michigan State dominated for most of the game (late foul calls, ahem, and Jaden Akins’ rustiness really hurt the Spartans in the second half) — the Spartans will have an opportunity to play and beat a better team in Kentucky. This Kentucky team, like the Spartans, is nursing some injuries and dealing with its own adversity, but expect John Calipari’s balanced, high-powered offensive team and deep defensive arsenal of front-court weapons to give Tom Izzo and the Spartans all they can handle.

Michigan State Depth Chart:

1 - A.J. Hoggard (6’4” Jr.), Tre Holloman (6’2” Fr.)
2 - Tyson Walker (6’0” Sr.), Jaden Akins (6’4” So.)
3 - Malik Hall (6’8” Sr.), Pierre Brooks II (6’5” So.)
4 - Joey Hauser (6’9” Sr.)
5 - Mady Sissoko (6’9” Jr.), Jaxon Kohler (6’9” Fr.), Carson Cooper (6’11” Fr.)

Hauser will play better, as will Akins, as will Kohler — none of them can play much worse offensively than they did on the USS Lincoln against Gonzaga! Furthermore, Brooks’ plus-minus numbers really did him a disservice in the Gonzaga game. Brooks, like Sissoko, really defended and rebounded well, and I expect both players to build off of their rock-solid performances.

Hoggard remains the heartbeat of the team, and his offensive orchestration will only get easier in this game as Akins, Walker and Hauser return to form offensively. The big question remains the front-court depth, and whether or not this team will be best-served starting three guards or the two senior forwards (Hall and Hauser) together. I expect Kohler to play better in this one — some of these Kentucky bigs are the kinds of guys that Kohler’s footwork may befuddle. Furthermore, I absolutely do not expect Izzo to start three guards any time soon, but would not be surprised to see him roll with that lineup as a closing group more-and-more as the season goes on.

No. 4 Kentucky (2-0), No. 1 (Kenpom)

Depth Chart:

1 - Sahvir Wheeler (5’9” Sr.)
2 - C.J. Fredrick (6’3” Sr.), Antonio Reeves (6’5” Sr.)
3 - Cason Wallace (6’4” Fr.), Chris Livingston (6’6” Fr.), Adou Thiero (6’6” Fr.)
4 - Jacob Toppin (6’9” Jr.), Daimion Collins (6’9” So.)
5 - Oscar Tshiebwe (6’9” Sr.), Lance Ware (6’9” Jr.), Ugonna Onyenso (6’9” Fr.)


Expect Wheeler and Tshiebwe to re-enter the starting lineup for this one. While both are still working their way back from injury, they should be ready to roll against Michigan State. If Tshiebwe cannot play, or is limited, then expect the highly capable Ware, Onyensu and Toppin to take up more minutes. The other question is Collins, who tragically lost his father recently and continues to process that loss; if he plays then expect an emotional and energetic performance from the likely NBA draft pick. In short, while this Kentucky team is not fully up and running yet, the Wildcats have the quality and depth to merit their top-five ranking.

The big development with this Kentucky team is the three-point shooting: Frederick (the long-dormant Iowa transfer) and Reeves (the Illinois State transfer) are both flamethrowers. These two have combined to shoot 16-for-30 from three-point range in the first two games of the season and should average around seven three-point field goal attempts per game for the season (if not more). The spacing they provide for Wheeler and Tshiebwe will simply devastate most teams they face this season.

Not to be ignored, of course, are the standard high-quality freshmen and other NBA talent. This season, Kentucky’s crop is smaller, but potent nonetheless. Wallace will likely hear his name called in the first round of the NBA Draft as an athletic, tough-minded, two-way guard, and Livingston (a great frame and NBA athlete) may very well hear his name called, too. The aforementioned Collins is in-line to have a huge sophomore season, and, despite his early-season inefficiency, Toppin could also end up playing in the NBA with his brother (Obi Toppin).

This team is big, deep, athletic, and headlined by four dynamite seniors. The Wildcats play fast, move the ball, and have far more balance than Calipari teams tend to. This is a title contender when fully healthy.

Game plan:

Izzo and crew will hope that Kentucky’s plethora of bigs is not fully up-to-speed yet, and, regardless of the status of the opposition front-court, the Spartans will rely on their athletes and quality in the back-court to pressure the Kentucky guards all over the court. Wheeler, Wallace, Frederick and Reeves are damn good players, but I will take Hoggard, Walker, Akins and Holloman over them, if given the choice. Expect Hoggard to have another big game, and for Akins and Walker to find their scoring touch in the friendly confines of a basketball gym.

Sissoko will have to play even better than he did against Gonzaga — not necessarily in terms of his production, but certainly in terms of staying on the court. This is another game where he will be needed for about 30 minutes, so avoiding cheap fouls, turnovers and missed assignments will ensure that Izzo will ride him against the legion of Wildcats.

This is really a game for Hauser and Hall to excel: Livingston, Toppin, Collins and Onyenso are all quality forwards, so Hauser (who will need to bounce all the way back in this one) and Hall will have to rely on their skill level, veteran savvy and their ability to execute in pressure situations — oh, and both will need to hit at least a couple of three-pointers to balance the floor and alleviate the scoring pressure on the MSU guards.


While Reeves and Frederick have had a great opening couple of games, I expect the Spartan defenders to hound them both into poor shooting nights, effectively compressing the court for the Wildcats’ offense. Defensively for Reeves and Frederick , those two will have to defend some strong, quick and athletic Spartans and should prove to be the weak-points on an otherwise stellar Kentucky defense. Look for Akins to really break out on offense, and for Walker to operate to a much greater effect in this one (Walker-Hauser pick-and-pops should really work well).

I’m betting that Kohler has a better game in this one, and that Hauser finds his stroke from range and chips in with some crucial second half buckets and rebounds. Ultimately, this is going to be a game for Hoggard to attack another smaller defender relentlessly. The Spartans will hold the line in this one.

Michigan State 79, Kentucky 72

Go Green