Tuesday night will feature some of the nation’s top hoops programs in the annual Champions Classic.
This time, the Kentucky Wildcats will take on the Michigan State Spartans in the first game of the double-header, which is followed by Duke vs Kansas. Since the first year this event was held in 2011, UK has scored wins over Duke and Kansas, but have been unable to take down Michigan State.
The Spartans and Wildcats have met only once during that span, and it was Izzo’s squad coming away with a 78-74 win in the 2013 matchup.
Kentucky comes into this game ranked No. 2 in both major polls, while Michigan State is ranked 13th. Needless to say, this will be a great test for Cal and his young Cats as they face their first major challenge of what hopes to be a fun and memorable season.
Here is a recap of everything Cal had to say at Monday’s meeting with the media, courtesy of UK Athletics:
On challenges Michigan State presents
“Physical play. They fly up and down the court. They set great screens. Offensive rebound, they absolutely jam you in the back and they’re coming. There’s no, ‘Let me try to get around you.’ It’s mush mouth around that goal, and they go for balls.
“They play like his (Tom Izzo) teams play. I think they’ll probably go under pick-and-rolls. They’ll probably sag a little bit and get us to shoot jump shots and things like that. They dig in the post. They do a great job of digging in the post.
“They wait until you bounce and then they kind of converge. Sometimes they trap. Most times they don’t.”
On Tom Izzo saying he might call him about having a bunch of freshmen
“We talk all – we’ll talk throughout the year. Obviously we’re getting ready to play so neither one of us have talked, and we’ve both been busy. But he is one of the good guys in our profession. Like I said, he and I throughout the year will call each other throughout the year, and mainly we just start laughing (about), like, stuff that happened or what happened with me or what happened with him.
“He’s done it a long time and he’s done with all kinds of different teams. You know they’re going to play tough. They’re going to be physical. You know they’re going to rebound. You know they’re going to fly up and down the court. You know.
“And then he tries to figure out each team that he has how they have to play.”
On needling Izzo about playing with a bunch of freshmen like Cal does
“There’s a lot of guys that – I don’t have to needle. They look at me when I walk in and I just wink. There’s more than just Tom. Everybody’s playing young guys and it’s difficult. It’s a process. You’ve got to be patient but you can’t be patient.
“There’s things you’ve got to do to challenge them to, like the (Stephen F. Austin) coach said, get old fast. And that’s hard. That’s hard. And you’re trying to win. You have a program that’s won and you want to win.”
On how the team will handle smash-mouth basketball
“I have no idea. Like I said last night, they may pee down their leg. I just have no idea because there are some tough matchups. They have the (Miles) Bridges kid, the perimeter shooter and a couple other athletes that drive the ball.
“My guess after is that after watching us, they’re probably going to pass it three or four times, throw to a wing, cut away and try to beat the guy one-on-one. They’ll run the stuff that they run, but if you’ve watched us, you say, ‘When so-and-so is guarding you, you start dribbling.
“Go right at the rim.’ So, we’re going to do some stuff today. They’re currently watching tape with the assistant coaches of last night’s game and then we’ll go out and practice for about an hour or so and then walk through their stuff. They run good stuff, but us running good stuff doesn’t matter.
“It about will you rebound? Will you run up and down that court and fly because they’re going to fly? And, will you get screened or will you physically screen the same way they do?
“And that’s going to be just talking to each other, trusting each other, and other stuff that we’re just learning how to do.”
On his new book coming out on Tuesday
“Is there a book coming out? (Laughs) No. The guys hit me this morning and I said, ‘I’m not worried about that book.’ But I had to put out that it is coming out. And I think it’s a great read. [Laughter.] But I’m worried about this game and I’ll worry about the other stuff next week sometime.”
On writing the book
“I spent four days with Michael (Sokolove) down there (at my vacation house in Florida). The original version was titled, “The Art of Coaching Extreme Talent.” All the genius publishers added the other stuff. And the reason for this book was because everyone keeps asking, ‘How in the world are you doing this?’
“So that’s what the book was, but the first version was not what I wanted so we went down (to Florida to edit it), and now we’ll see. But I’m not worried about it. It’s a chance for me to leave something and share something on what we do and how we do it here.
“And if other people chose to do it this way and it helps players, I’m happy. Then I come back to, they’re not going to do it better than we do it. But they can do it, and it’s good for players, that would be fine.”
On getting ready for the Champions Classic
“It’s a good event. The other (the CBS Sports Classic) is a good event too. I am not sure if that will keep going. Hopefully North Carolina will stay in. UCLA is coming back. They have those guards, and Ohio State is always good. With this thing, early in the year, it’s a hard deal. Last year we beat Duke, it made it a nice couple of weeks.
“Then we go back and lose to Ohio State or whoever we lost to. I mean, it’s an early game. It’s great for fans (but) it’s tough for coaches. But for us, what I am excited about is that the issues we have, if we don’t improve them in this game, you will see it glaring, and then we have the attention of this team – like, if you really want to win.
“We have good players, but that is not what wins. It’s the grind, the toughness, the grittiness and the offensive rebound attempts. I’m not going to get beat to a ball. He’s not going to beat me to a ball. All of those things you will see in this game right now.
“And the other thing you guys talked about is, OK, lights are at Madison Square Garden, it’s a nationally televised game, everybody is watching. It’s like the presidential debate. How do you do now? Can you make a shot? Can you make a free throw? Can you think?
“Great environment for that, to find out early.”
On if this is the type of game where Isaiah Briscoe steps up
“Yeah. He and I talked already. We have things to do with other guys, and I imagine – I already told him how I think they’ll play him because he’s just getting into the lane so easily – I would imagine they are putting a couple guys on him.
“Almost like having a linebacker (who spies the quarterback). You say you have two guys on him all the time. So they will probably do that, but he’s working so hard. When you invest like he did this year, then you like the coach – when you invest like this. When last year, it is pulling teeth and you’re going to the dentist every day. ‘I don’t want to do this.’
“But when you do invest like he is you just don’t surrender. You just keep playing. You keep coming. And then you start dragging other guys with you. ‘We’re not giving up. All the work I put in this. Come on.’ And that’s where he is. It’s where do you try to get all your team.
“And then they become empowered and they’re doing this vs. coaching doing it.”
On competing against Izzo for Miles Bridges, who Michigan State got
“We did. We did. Tom’s beaten us. He’s really good, but they’ve beaten us – Michigan State’s beaten us on a lot of players. I’m not meaning this because Tom and I are friends, but it’s like, ‘What happened there?’
“They beat us on a lot of kids. Miles Bridges is legitimately one of the best players in the country – physically, skill wise. He’s a big body with guard skills. Not afraid. He’s Tom’s kind of player, too. He’s gritty. He’s tough. He’s good, but we’ve recruited the Cassius (Winston) kid.
“A couple of the wings. I mean, we recruited those guys, and I know how good they are. Good kids too, all good kids. It’s like, we don’t get every guy we recruit.”
On Derek Willis
“Well, Derek Willis will probably start unless I’m not comfortable today. And if he defends he can stay in the game. If he can’t defend and he makes three shots, then he probably won’t play much in this game.
“You gotta guard, man. You gotta rebound. It’s real simple. So, it isn’t anything to do with what he does offensively. I know what he can do offensively. We all do. I’m proud of him.
“Again, he’s the last one to leave this gym every day so he’s building up his confidence in what he can do offensively. Now get in there and fight. Get in there and fight.”
On Willis’ defensive breakdowns
“Some of its focus. Some of its moving your feet. Some of its retreating. Most of it is communication. If you don’t talk, we don’t know what you’re doing. It’s two of us together most times if you watch. He’s either getting beat on a bounce or he’s with another guy and he’s not communicating – or they’re not and that group is not doing the right thing. They’re both playing one man and now he’s trying his butt off. But, now results matter in this thing.”
On if he can teach from either a loss or a win vs Michigan State
“Yeah. I’d rather win and learn from a win than a loss. Sometimes I don’t think you learn much from a loss other than you lost a game, and you learn how to lose. This may be beyond us right now.
“We’ll find out. We’re going to walk in and – you’ll probably in the first five-seven minutes will go either, ‘Ah, they can play with these guys,’ or you’re going to go in there and say, ‘Those dudes are men. Our guys are going to be OK, but right now they’re not up to this.’
“You’ll probably say that in the first five minutes. One or the other.”