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Kentucky Basketball: Preview Of The Champion's Classic Game With Michigan State

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Tonight, we should witness one of the great basketball games of this season when the Kentucky Wildcats meet the Michigan St. Spartans.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, we take on the Michigan St. Spartans in a game between the two top ranked teams in the nation. That it should happen so early in the season is both a blessing and a curse, but the one thing it will almost certainly be is entertaining. We have two great coaches, John Calipari and Tom Izzo, going against each other in what is billed by the pedantic moralists as a battle between good and evil.

No matter what, this is no morality play, it is a college basketball game between a historic blueblood and a relative newcomer to the college basketball elite. Despite Tom Izzo's much-ballyhooed and deserved plaudits for the quality of his teams, John Calipari has won as many NCAA championships and been to as many NCAA finals in his four years at Kentucky as Izzo has been in 18 years at Michigan St. Since Izzo has been at MSU, Kentucky has won 3 NCAA Tournament titles, been to the Final Four five times and the NCAA Tournament finals in each all but one of those trips.

If this sounds a touch elitist, it is intentional. Kentucky is a storied program with a long history of NCAA Tournament success, and the winningest program in all of college basketball. Michigan St. is not at that level historically, but that won't matter tonight, as they are definitely worthy of their lofty ranking and are more than a sufficient challenge for the painfully young Kentucky Wildcats.

History with Michigan St.

Kentucky has a long history of games with the Spartans, starting in 1935. Kentucky still has more wins in the 22-game history of this contest, but only just - 12-10. Since the turn of the century, Michigan St. is 3-1 against Kentucky.

Games with Michigan St. are virtually always close. The last nine games, going all the way back to 1971, have been decided by less than ten points. Three have been decided by three points or less, and one, the last meeting in the 2005 Regional Finals in Austin, was decided in overtime. Nobody can forget this shot to get us there:

This has been a very competitive series historically, and there is no reason to expect anything different tonight.

Michigan St. Roster

No. Name Status Ht. Wt. Pos. Year Hometown/High School Notes [Last season]
11 Appling, Keith S 6-1 185 G SR Detroit, Mich./Pershing [Leading scorer (13.4), leading assists (3.3), most minutes played (33.6)]
10 Costello, Matt S 6-9 240 F SO Bay City, Mich./Bay City Western [2nd best FT% (82%)]
22 Dawson, Branden S 6-6 225 G/F JR Gary, Ind./Lew Wallace [3rd highest FG% (53%), leading steals (1.6), 2nd blocked shots (0.9), 2nd leading OR (2.1)]
14 Harris, Gary S 6-4 210 G SO Fishers, Ind./Hamilton Southeastern [Second leading scorer last season, best 3-pt shooter (41%), 2nd minutes played (29.7)]
5 Payne, Adreian S 6-10 245 C SR Dayton, Ohio/Jefferson Township [Leading FG%, best FT% (85%), best defensive rebounder (5.5)]
0 Byrd, Russell MR 6-7 205 G RS JR Fort Wayne, Ind./Blackhawk Christian
34 Schilling, Gavin MR 6-9 240 F FR Chicago, Ill./Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.)
20 Trice, Travis MR 6-0 170 G JR Huber Heights, Ohio/Wayne [2nd best 3-pt shooter (40%)]
45 Valentine, Denzel MR 6-5 225 G SO Lansing, Mich./Sexton
13 Bohnhoff, Trevor R 6-7 215 F SO Saginaw, Mich./Nouvel
40 Chapman, Dan R 6-3 190 G SR Okemos, Mich./Okemos
3 Ellis III, Alvin R 6-4 195 G FR Matteson, Ill./Chicago De La Salle
2 Gauna, Alex R 6-9 250 F RS JR Eaton Rapids, Mich./Eaton Rapids
30 Kaminski, Kenny R 6-8 225 F RS FR Medina, Ohio/Medina
15 Wetzel, Keenan R 6-4 210 G RS JR Monroe, Mich./St. Mary Catholic Central
41 Wollenman, Colby R 6-7 225 F RS SO Big Horn, Wyo./Big Horn
S: Starter
MR: Major Reserve
R: Reserve

Players of note

  • Keith Appling was a good but not great point guard last season. He should be very good this season, and if the first game is any indication, his 3-point shooting is much improved. Appling is the ice that chills Sparty's drink, and one of their major scoring threats.

  • Gary Harris is likely to be the leading scorer this season. MSU works very hard to get him looks from 3-point range, and he's deadly from out there. He's also got great size for a college off-guard.

  • Braden Dawson is not a big scorer, but he is very athletic and can shoot from the perimeter. Solid defender, strong and physical, and rebounds the ball extremely well for a guy only 6'6".

  • Matt Costello is primarily a big body. He's not a dangerous scorer or a particularly good rebounder. He's a solid defender against most teams, but will be disadvantaged against UK no matter who he guards.

  • Adreian Payne is a big, strong forward who can shoot the ball very well from the perimeter. Strong post-up player and very good defensive rebounder. Very reliable shooter on the block, and over 35% from 3.

  • Denzel Valentine is the Spartan's 6th man, a versatile player who can can do it all — shoot the ball inside and out, rebound, and defend. Not the quickest player out there off the bounce, but he's a superb passer and very sound fundamental player.

  • Russell Bird is a redshirt junior who can shoot the ball, he is disadvantaged against Kentucky on defense, but a dangerous offensive player if left open. He is very heady and intelligent, and knows how to minimize his weaknesses.

  • Travis Trice is a small point guard who backs up Appling. He's an excellent shooter (40% from 3) whom you have to respect, very quick of the dribble with quick hands. He and Appling sometimes play together also, so that lineup is one UK will have to watch out for as both those guys will test the defense of the Harrison twins.

Likely Matchups


The big matchup that most people are wondering about is, "Who will attempt to guard Julius Randle?" The likely answer to that question is Dawson, who is about the only player athletic enough to do so that is anywhere near Randle's size. Payne is just not quick enough to guard Randle out on the floor, and Randle would likely put him into early foul trouble. Can Dawson handle the job?

Defensively, Randle will probably be guarding Costello for two reasons — to avoid fouls and to prevent offensive rebounds. That shouldn't be a tremendous challenge for somebody as talented as Randle. Advantage: Randle

Willie Cauley-Stein and Payne should be the other big matchup to watch, and that should be a real interesting one. WCS is quicker than Payne, but Payne is strong and very physical, where as WCS is not known for his physicality. But WCS is extremely hard to handle in close due to his size and athleticism, and a real problem when he runs the floor. Defensively, WCS is slightly taller and more athletic then Payne, so if anybody can neutralize him, he's probably the one. Advantage: Draw

It seems that Michigan product and former MSU recruit James Young will be guarded by Matt Costello, but it's very likely that Denzel Valentine winds up getting more time than Costello because of the presence of Young. Michigan St. had to pick their poison and put Dawson on Young or Randle. He matches up perfectly against Young and could probably neutralize him, but that would leave Costello on Randle, a recipe for disaster.

Defensively, Young probably switches over to Dawson when Costello is in, and Dawson's greater experience and similar athleticism give him a bit of leverage there. Against Valentine, Young has the overall quickness and size advantage, but they are similar players with roughly similar games, although Valentine is less of a slasher and more of a spot-up shooter offensively. Overall, because of the mismatch on Costello, Young wins this one. Advantage: Young

Andrew Harrison and Appling represent a remarkable study in contrasts. Appling is a traditional small, scoring point guard, and Harrison is an absurdly big scoring point guard. Both can handle, shoot, drive and pass. Harrison's size is both an advantage and disadvantage against the quicker Appling, and this should be a battle royal. Advantage: Draw

Aaron Harrison and Harris are another great matchup. Harris is the perfect 2-guard for college at 6'4", and the slight height advantage enjoyed by Harrison won't matter much. These two are so similar, both physically and in their ability, that it is remarkable, but we have to give Harris the nod here because he's going to be run off screens all day, and that's going to wear down Aaron. Young will likely switch off on him some also, as the two are interchangeable defensively Harris is a Doron Lamb-type shooter who must be closely guarded at all times. Advantage: Harris


These benches match up fairly nicely. Valentine and Poythress are roughly similar in their ability to impact the game, albeit in different ways. Trice and either of the Harrisons are the same story, although if Jarrod Polson has to play, Trice's greater athleticism will be a significant advantage.

The X-factor off the bench is Dakari Johnson, because the Spartans really don't have an answer for him. He will force the Spartans to double-team, and open up 3-point shots, because there are no MSU players big enough and strong enough to get Johnson off the block. On the other end, Payne is too tough a cover for Johnson, so the net effect may be more of a wash unless Costello is in the game.

Russel Byrd is a nice player, but in no way can he hope to match up with Poythress or Marcus Lee, they are just too athletic for him. But overall, MSU has a good, deep, experienced bench, and I'm going to call it a draw, although if I were completely honest, I'd say Kentucky has a slight edge. Advantage: Draw


Overall, this is going to be both a physical contest and a chess match. Tom Izzo is one of the great bench coaches out there, and Calipari, while a good one, is not known so much for his clever coaching moves as Izzo is. But Calipari has much more talent to work with, young though it is, and that's going to create mismatches that Izzo will have to figure out how to defend.

The bottom line is this: Can the Spartans slow down the potent combination of Randle, Young, and the Harrison Twins? Those guys are going to be very tough, and the Spartans, while packing plenty of firepower on offense, lack the explosiveness of Kentucky. That's where their experience gives them an edge, and if they can leverage that to make it hard for Kentucky to penetrate the lane, and challenge perimeter shots, they have a great shot to win.

Kentucky, conversely, cannot allow the Spartans to overwhelm them on the offensive glass, as they so often do other teams. I personally think that Tom Izzo is the best offensive rebounding coach in America, and these young Kentucky men are going to have to play with great fundamentals and great intensity, both of which are often hard to find in freshmen at this point in the season.

So Calipari has to figure out a way to motivate his charges to rebound the ball very well, and defend in a disciplined way while avoiding foul trouble. Izzo has to be more concerned, in theory, with foul trouble than Kentucky, but their greater experience gives them some leverage here, as well.

In the end, this game may come down to who makes the most free throws, and I think that edge has to go to Michigan St. They are a proven commodity at the stripe, and Kentucky isn't.

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