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Position by position preview of Wildcats vs. Spartans

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How everything can go right or wrong for Kentucky in their season-opener against the top-ranked team in America

Kentucky Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

I expect a great performance from the Kentucky Basketball team in their season opener against No. 1 Michigan State.

The Cats beat Kansas by 30 to introduce the dominance that would follow in 2015. They beat the Spartans by 20 during Malik Monk’s breakout. And they handled Grayson-Allen-led Duke in 2016 behind Tyler Ulis. It’s time to pillage another national power in the marquee tip-off event.

Here are the expectations that must be met in order for the Wildcats to defeat Michigan State.

Point Guard: DEFEND!!!

For Kentucky to topple the Spartans, the Cats will need a stout defensive performance from swarming lead guard and returning starter Ashton Hagans. Ash may or may not be aware, but he’s going up against the best player in college basketball. With starting two-guard Josh Langford out for Michigan State, Winston must shift back to the incredibly-high-usage pass-first AND score-first 5’11 supernova point guard he was last year, what a break for the Cats!

The Langford injury is a loss for Sparty on paper but last year--where Langford missed most of the season--played out similar to our very own Lynn Bowden situation. Sometimes, when the best player on the court or field gets to have the ball even more, emphatic results accompany. Winston is one of those wizardly talents, a wise gentleman among arrogant sons as an offense-leading savant. I would say Winston is Michigan State’s engine but I’d also have to mention he’s their front left tire, steering wheel, accelerator and he’s also the bungee cord you’ve used to hold your door together after breaking the hinge five months ago.

Tom Izzo did a fabulous job with this wily bunch last season but Winston is still 85% of this team’s offensive identity. Nick Ward bulldozer post-ups and Matt McQuaid screw it whatever 25-footers made up the other 15% in 2018-29.

So Hagans is the swing vote in the season opener, I believe. And once Hagans is done busting Cassius up, let’s send Tyrese Maxey at him, who is faster and spunkier and as competitive as Ashton. If that isn’t enough, unleash Immanuel, another fantastic defender! I hope Ashton can revive his harrowing Coby White defense of yesteryear--stopping Winston at the point attack will be the number one key to winning the ballgame.

Wings: Be the next “Bucket”

SCORE THE BASKETBALL! Busy guarding the preseason AP Player of the Year and handling lead guard duties for Kentucky, Hagans may see a dip in his own scoring totals, which is fine as long as Immanuel Quickley and Ty Maxey continue to perform bucket-getting at the highest possible level.

Through a pro day, a scrimmage, a scrimmage against the NAIA national champion and another scrimmage against a paltry Kentucky school, Immanuel Quickley has been a superstar. Stiffer game awaits, my friend. In the form finally-healthy orange-haired tight end swingman Kyle Ahrens and promising sizey sophomore Aaron Henry. Maybe even a dose of freshman bonanza scorer Rocket Watts. Experience, athletic defense and heat-check scoring meet Ty and Immanuel--two crafty defenders, A/A- athletes and encyclopedia scoring prowess between them

They’ll need to outscore Michigan State’s wings. On the scoreboard, this is Kentucky’s biggest advantage. Quickley and Maxey are each far more talented than their opposition, they have to take advantage. Maxey can beat every non-Cassius Spartan off the dribble, and without walking too! Let’s see it. Feed him like Benny Snell, let that man invent new ways to humiliate defenders in isolation--like James Harden does four times a year when he gets bored.

Oh, and Johnny J can come in and sink a flurry of triples if he wants. It’s a special occasion (1 vs. 2 if you hadn’t yet heard), I’ll allow it.

Forwards: One special performance

Produce a game-swinging performance. A 20-point Kahlil Whitney game, a 20-point Keion Brooks game, or a 20-point Nate Sestina game. One of those three and I’m supremely confident in a win. From what I’ve seen so far, this is how I’d handicap the chances of who would pop off for 20+ should it happen:

Nate Sestina -110

Keion Brooks +175

Kahlil Whitney +215

Sestina is a vet, man. He knows where to go and where to set screens and how to move around the floor and get open and crash the glass and dive to the hoop or cut towards the basket. I love it all.

And right now, Kentucky needs a guy like that, a “glue guy” for those of you who’d like to dip your hand in the ever-sweet Sports Cliche Honey Jar. The Bucknell product can really get hot quick (and I’d make a snarky weather-contrast joke since Bucknell is in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania but I refuse to touch the Jar!) and he could absolutely hit a slew of jumpers. Sestina has already faced Michigan State as a college player, noted by no less than every game preview. A comfortable, rangy big is an asset I treasure very much in this early-season showdown and he could flip the game with a scorching night from the field.

Keion Brooks is really puzzling me as a basketball-playing product. He’s tantalizing for sure--super frisky and athletically unpredictable as an either/or forward that isn’t super at any particular skill, except that he manages to score a handful of points every game. It’s funky mid-range pull-ups--that admittedly look kinda funny anyway after binge-watching the first couple weeks of NBA action--and little herky-jerky drives that result in mid-rangers or oddly simple finishes at the rim. Brooks is very good but I haven’t understood why. And he could blow up for 24 (not 25 yet) and I wouldn’t be shocked.

I think I know Kahlil Whitney and he’s the current least-likely guy to put up huge scoring numbers of the forward triumvirate. By season’s end, he’ll be the best player of the group I’m nearly certain. He’s built like a young 6-foot-6 Kawhi--and a documentary about him was named “The DRAGON” so he’s already garnering a similar aura it looks like).

Plus, he’s fast and is improving rapidly as a jump-shooter, though he enrolled last week in the Ashton Hagans School of Stepping on the Freaking Three-Point Line. Like Brooks, Whitney’s game poses more mystery and certainty but Whitney is more in control of his body and the ball while on the basketball court. He just isn’t as much of an inherent positioner on offense. He’ll learn and he’ll improve and he’ll become one of the best small forwards in the country, this year or some year.

Or heck, maybe he’s Alex Poythress without the injuries and I haven’t smelled the roses yet. We’ll see.

Center: Something, anything?

Priority number one in this department is regaining a healthy Nicholas Richards. I’m going to address EJ in a second so hold the thought but Nick is massively important for Kentucky. Here are his achievements within the Kentucky locker room before playing even one real game in his junior season:

  • Oldest player on the team
  • Most experienced
  • Tallest
  • Longest wingspan
  • Best rebounder
  • Best shot blocker
  • Best lobe target
  • Best hair

That’s an important list, and with the other tower not towing his share, Nick is all the more important. Regardless, by the time you read this a decision on Richards may have already been made.

On to EJ: We need something out of the Georgian big. But, (HUGE sigh), man, he doesn’t have it. Whatever breed of mental craziness that makes certain people love basketball with an addiction, an addiction that buzzes in your head every moment you’re on the court that says I can’t lose this effing game; Montgomery lacks it. His body language was horrible again the other night. He looked befuddled and overly-stressed as chubby Division II forwards roasted him on the glass in two consecutive games. That’s unacceptable, and it has to change for Kentucky to beat the Spartans.