With two exhibitions and the first two regular season games out of the way, the first real test of the season looms ahead of the Kentucky Wildcats. The Michigan State Spartans will face off with the ‘Cats on tonight in Chicago, Illinois in the Champions Classic.
The Spartans have only played one regular season game thus far, and they won it in convincing fashion. They blistered McNeese State 98-56. Gary Harris was his usual self, scoring 20 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out six assists. Other players that had big nights were the usual suspects: Adreian Payne and Keith Appling.
There is no doubt that this game will tell us a lot about this young team. Yes, they have all of the spectacular individual talent in the world, but they haven't really put that talent together and performed as a team. They are getting there and there is evidence of progress: they are communicating on both sides of the court, they are looking to get everyone involved on offense, they are starting to take pride in defense, and they hustle after every loose ball. Individual superstars aren't supposed to do those things.
That's why I'm not too overly concerned about the outcome versus Michigan State. The Wildcats may very well get beaten by a very talented veteran basketball team; but the mental make-up of these Wildcats will not make it easy for the Spartans to accomplish that task.
Take the quotes from the players themselves as examples of what I'm talking about:
Willie Cauley-Stein: On their upcoming game against Michigan State ...
"It tests you as an individual, for one. You have guys that want to go at you because of who you are and how much hype you get. You've got to prove that the hype is real and that it's not just hype. You as a basketball player have to go in thinking the same thing that they are thinking. It tests you as a player."
Andrew Harrison: On what he knows about Michigan State...
"Not much. Coach hasn't really given us any film and we haven't watched film on them. We have just been focused on Northern Kentucky. We are going to start working on them tomorrow. By tomorrow I will definitely know a lot about them."
On if they get eager anticipating a big challenge...
"Yea. They are ranked number two I think and we are ranked number one. It's definitely going to be a good test for us. They are a great team. Coach doesn't think we are ready, but we are just going to play hard and see who has it in them and who doesn't."
Julius Randle: On his thoughts on Tuesday's game against Michigan State...
"I think we as a team are getting better. Tuesday is going to be a war. I know we are willing to fight. Coach is trying to challenge us and make us stronger. We believe we are ready. We have guys on our team with experience, too. Michigan State is a physical team. The strength coaches have been preparing us for that."
Nothing flashy, no bulletin board material, no cockiness; everything is about improving as a team and meeting the challenge ahead. They want to fight, they want to improve, and they want to win. They are welcoming a battle.
And this is the behavior that we see on the court as well. Whenever a player makes a dunk or an eye-popping play, there is little fanfare involved. It's a five from a teammate, then run down the court and get back on defense.
Much of this mindset can, I think, be attributed to the leadership of Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison. The young men are no nonsense, hard-nosed players that are more concerned about beating the opposition down then how they look on a dunk. They show relatively little emotion and are precise in their actions.
During a TV timeout against Northern Kentucky, Andrew Harrison was on the bench, and as his team approached the huddle on the sideline, he got up and talked to every one of those players even though he wasn't even in the game. He was instructing, praising and letting them know that he is involved even as he sits on the bench. That's what you want to see out of your point guard.
This is the team that will face off in a very highly anticipated match up; a young team that hasn't quite gotten it all together yet, but will be there in short time. They may lose, but they will learn. And we all know that this bunch will hate losing more than anything. That's a taste that they will want to spew from their mouth.
No matter what happens Tuesday against the Spartans, I like my team.