Due to no summer trip this year, the 2019-2020 Kentucky Wildcats are rolling into this basketball season with much less fanfare than a year ago. However, the lights will be bright in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday as the top four teams in the land will take the court in the Champions Classic.
The night will be kicked off by No. 3 Kansas taking on No. 4 Duke, and the No. 2 Wildcats will take on the top team in the country, Michigan State, in the night cap. This is the first time these teams in the Champions Classic have been ranked as the top four teams during this event, and certainly the first time that the first two games of the season feature the top four teams matching up against one another.
The Kentucky Wildcats are returning four players that are certain to see a lot of action this season. The team will be led by veteran guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, and junior Nick Richards and sophomore EJ Montgomery will be very important for the success of this shallow front court lineup. Bucknell transfer Nate Sestina will also bring a veteran presence to the paint, and he seems like an early leader for this young team.
Freshmen Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney, and Keion Brooks highlight another top-tier recruiting class for John Calipari. All three are versatile players that will have to contribute in major ways for this team to be successful. Johnny Juzang is also sure to see a fair share of playing time in the back court, and Kentucky native Dontaie Allen may find a roll once returning from injury.
Michigan State is struggling with injuries of their own as senior Joshua Langford is out indefinitely and sophomore forward Kyle Kithier will be wearing a mask to protect his recently broken nose. But with the talent they have returning, the Spartans have every claim to the No. 1 spot in the country.
Senior Cassius Winston is predicted by most to be the favorite for national player of the year, and with his decision to return to college Michigan State put the entire country on notice. This is a dangerous team that will be a problem for teams they face all season long, and Kentucky is no exception.
In terms of advanced stats, KenPom thinks these are the best two teams in college basketball, just as the preseason polls do. KenPom has Michigan State ranked No. 1 overall, highlighted by their No. 1 ranking in offensive efficiency. They rank No. 5 in defensive efficiency, making them one of just three teams with a top-five offense and defense (Duke and Louisville are the other two).
Kentucky, on the other hand, ranks No. 1 in defensive efficiency and No. 8 in offensive efficiency. While these ratings don’t factor in exhibition games, it is safe to think Kentucky’s defense is a few steps ahead of the offense right now, just as KenPom indicates.
Michigan State opened as a 2.5 point favorite to win on Tuesday, and that line has gotten to as high as four in some sportsbooks. Bettors are always hesitant to place bigger bets on early season games, as lines and rankings are based upon unproven predictions. So it makes sense that the line isn’t more than a couple of field goals, especially considering the number of new players Kentucky brings to the table.
Here are some recent better trends for both teams:
- Michigan State is 5-2 ATS in their last 7 games.
- The total has gone UNDER in 6 of Michigan State’s last 7 games.
- Michigan State is 9-1 SU in their last 10 games.
- Michigan State is 4-2 SU in their last 6 games against Kentucky.
- Michigan State is 7-1 SU in their last 8 games against an opponent in the Southeastern conference.
- Michigan State is 6-1 SU in their last 7 games played in November.
- Michigan State is 5-2 ATS in their last 7 neutral site games.
- The total has gone OVER in 4 of Michigan State’s last 6 games played on a Tuesday.
- Kentucky is 4-2 ATS in their last 6 games.
- The total has gone UNDER in 13 of Kentucky’s last 17 games.
- Kentucky is 16-4 SU in their last 20 games.
- The total has gone OVER in 4 of Kentucky’s last 6 games against Michigan State.
- The total has gone OVER in 6 of Kentucky’s last 8 games against an opponent in the Big Ten conference.
- Kentucky is 6-0 SU in their last 6 games played in November.
- Kentucky is 8-1 SU in their last 9 games played on a Tuesday.
- Kentucky is 7-0 ATS in their last 7 non-conference games.
So if you do insist on placing money on this game, betting the under seems to be your safest option.
All five of Sports Illustrated’s pickers went with the Spartans. Jeremy Woo offered up this assessment of the game:
Kentucky is going to be plenty dangerous, but opening the season against a more experienced team anchored by Cassius Winston isn’t the ideal Game 1 draw. The Wildcats should be able to apply plenty of ball pressure, but will have to hit the ground running to win this, while still sorting out their personnel. Expect this to be competitive, with Xavier Tillman proving a difference-maker against Kentucky’s front line.
CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish, Matt Norlander, and Jerry Palm all predicted a Michigan State win, while Kyle Boone and Chip Patterson picked Kentucky.
Covers.com has Michigan State covering a three-point spread vs. the Wildcats.
SportsbookReview thinks Kentucky covers that three-point spread.
The OddsShark computers have Kentucky winning 73-56...
TeamRankings has the Spartans winning 69-67, while numberFire went with a 71-68 win for them.
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 Duke in Indianapolis last season. 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. In March, I may have a different opinion.
Prediction: Michigan State 69, Kentucky 57