The college basketball season is here, which is like Christmas morning to the state of Kentucky.
A Champions Classic date with the Michigan State Spartans in a 1 vs. 2 showdown.
Kentucky holds a record of 1-1 against the Spartans in the Champions Classic, including one of those being a loss in a No. 1 vs No. 2 showdown in 2013.
The Wildcats have also lost their last two Champions Classic matchups against Kansas in 2017 and the drubbing against Duke last season. The Wildcats will look to snap a two-game losing skid Tuesday, and we gathered our staff for their thoughts and prediction on the game.
Both teams are going into this game with some injuries. Michigan State is missing forward Josh Langford and Kentucky obviously has the injury of Nick Richards to worry about. I get the impression that this will be a battle of the backcourts with two of the premier point guards in the country going against each other in Ashton Hagans and Cassius Winston.
If Kentucky’s guards can outplay Michigan State’s, then I somehow feel eerily confident that Kentucky can get the job done. The play of Nate Sestina will also have to be huge if Nick Richards misses the game and with the play of EJ Montgomery so far, we might be looking at a small-ball lineup for the majority of the game.
However, I do think Kentucky drops this one as they don’t look like their full potential as of yet, but rarely do Cal’s teams ever look 100% from the opening game.
Prediction: Michigan State 76, Kentucky 70.
After watching Kentucky’s first two exhibition games, one thing has become crystal clear - this team is nowhere close to being ready for the nation’s No. 1-ranked team as the Wildcats kick off the year in a made-for-TV event at Madison Square Garden.
Despite some strong guard play early on - Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey have all flashed signs of brilliance - the frontcourt has been cause for major concerns with injuries and a lack of toughness that saw the Cats get outrebounded by defending NAIA National Champion Georgetown College.
Nate Sestina, EJ Montgomery and Keion Brooks must all play with reckless abandon to give UK any chance of competing with a Michigan State team that plays a smash-mouth style of basketball as the preseason favorite to win the rough and tough Big Ten Conference.
With Kentucky’s one-and-done success during the John Calipari era, Kentucky fans have become accustomed to a few bumps in the road during the early non-conference schedule. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll once again be hearing about Cal’s “We Win or We Learn” Tour after falling to the Spartans on Tuesday.
Prediction: Michigan State 72, Kentucky 60.
The Cats will start their season on Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden at the Champion’s Classic against No. 1 Michigan State. These two teams are polar opposites as the Spartans are a veteran group coming off a Final Four run in last year’s NCAA Tournament while Kentucky is very young in comparison to their opponent.
The Spartans are led by senior point guard Cassius Winston, who is an early season candidate for Player of the Year. Aaron Henry and Xavier Tillman help round out an always physical group for Tom Izzo’s team as well.
On the other hand, Kentucky will be relying on another talented group of underclassmen. EJ Montgomery, Immanuel Quickley, and Ashton Hagans will help lead a strong group of freshmen, including Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney, and Keion Brooks, into a primetime matchup between the two best teams in the country.
The key for the Wildcats may very well rest on the health of Nick Richards. If Richards can play, even in limited minutes, I like the Wildcats’ chances much better than if he doesn’t suit up at all just because of how thin the Wildcats frontcourt can get and what he brings by both finishing around the basket and altering shots at the rim.
Nick Richards has reportedly participated in some form at practice and walkthrough on Sunday, which makes it seem as if he at least has a chance at playing on Tuesday night. Richards impacts Kentucky’s game plan on both sides of the ball so much that my prediction rests completely on his health.
If Richards doesn’t play, I think the Spartans present too much of a challenge down low to handle. If he plays, and I feel like he will in a limited fashion, I think the Wildcats get a close win to start the season in The World’s Most Famous Arena.
Prediction: Kentucky 72, Michigan State 68
No matter how hard I try, I cannot get last year’s Champions Classic out of my head. A team we thought was a juggernaut took an absolute pounding from that team I will not name. While expectations are not as high for this year’s Kentucky team as they were at this point a year ago, the Champions Classic is still a high profile event that adds all of the pressure of a postseason game.
It looks as though Nick Richards may be able to suit up on Tuesday. But you have to wonder if he has been rushed back due to the lack of contribution from EJ Montgomery. Michigan State has a few injury issues as well, most notably Joshua Langford.
I think that, in March, Kentucky will be a national title contender. But I believe Michigan State is a national title contender right now. So I believe the Wildcats will show up and play well, but I do not see them getting the win in MSG on Tuesday.
Prediction: Michigan State 69, Kentucky 57
This one is a tough one to predict. It’s not just the first game of the season, both teams have injury questions and concerns heading into Tuesday night’s showdown.
Michigan State is the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. They return a lot of talent, including the best player in college basketball in Cassius Winston, as well as a solid group of newcomers. This is a great mix of pure talent and veteran leadership for Tom Izzo.
On the other hand, the Cats are also returning a solid core paired with a dynamite freshmen class and Nate Sestina. The scoring and defensive trio of Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, and Immanuel Quickley will give Kentucky a chance to knock off the Spartans.
However, the lack of a post presence and rim protector could be UK’s undoing. Couple that with the usual freshmen mistakes, and that should be just enough to propel Michigan State to victory.
While Izzo teams seem to start the year slow and turn it on in March, this team feels different, especially with Winston at the helm.
Something’s telling me to pick Kentucky. There’s so much talent and the potential is sky high. But there are a lot of question marks surrounding the Cats right now. And for that reason, I’m going with the team I know is Final Four caliber.
Prediction: Michigan State 71 Kentucky 68
The wait is finally over. I am going to continue to preach that as long as the Champions Classic is the first game of the season, then anything can happen. No result on Tuesday night would genuinely surprise me.
Like most, I am really looking forward to the matchup between Ashton Hagans and Cassius Winston. Whoever wins this battle should put their team in a good position to win.
I’m particularly interested to see how Hagans shows up in his first game since Jared Harper got the best of him in last year’s Elite Eight. The sophomore point guard has looked extremely confident all offseason and you can only assume he’s had this one circled for a long time.
If Kentucky can’t respond to Michigan State’s physicality then this game will not be close. The Cats have to step up and be willing to bang and fight for rebounds. Look for Nate Sestina to be that guy.
My head may be telling me something different, but I’m going to go with UK finding a way to win in the Big Apple.
Also, I will be covering the game for A Sea of Blue, so follow @BigBlueDrew33 for sights and sounds in NYC.
Prediction: Kentucky 71, Michigan State 68
It has to be difficult to not being insanely excited and nervous for the Champions Classic. Tuesday is one of the best days on the college basketball calendar every season now and Kentucky’s playing in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown to officially kick off the season. You can’t ask for a better setup than that when you throw in Kansas-Duke as an appetizer.
Although the Cats will enter Madison Square Garden against Sparty as the slight underdog according to many across the country and out in Vegas, they’ll enter this dynamic matchup with one of the sport’s best rosters. They’re not as young as they’ve been on this night in some years, but the youth that’s arrived in Lexington this season is electric and exciting to watch already.
Cassius Winston is not only a Big Ten Player of the Year favorite, but a National Player of the Year front-runner on a blended Michigan State roster coming into the season that includes the return of Josh Langford, so the UK guards will have their hands full. But, with a guy like Ashton Hagans defending the ball and Tyrese Maxey showing off his lottery-projected talent on the other end, the Cats can play with anyone.
On a personal note, I think a game like this could be prime for a Nate Sestina “breakout” if you will. He’s shown some solid strides already since joining the BBN and with his experience, on top of returners like Hagans and EJ Montgomery, I truthfully have a good feeling about the Cats on Tuesday night.
Prediction: Kentucky 79, Michigan State 74