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Kentucky Wildcats Morning Quickies: #1 vs. #2 Edition

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For only the 2nd time since 1975, #1 and #2 will meet in the college basketball season opener. Can Kentucky find a way to send Sparty home on his shield?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 17 Big Ten Conference Tournament - Michigan State v Michigan Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, and welcome to the Tuesday Morning Quickies.

Let’s see — what can we talk about? Hmm... Oh, isn’t there a big game tonight or something? Why, I believe there is! The Michigan State Spartans and Kentucky Wildcats will go at it spear and claw tonight in legendary Madison Square Garden in a rare 1-2 clash that represents the regular-season opener for both teams.

The Spartans return Cassius Winston, Aaron Henry, and Xavier Tillman, all starers from last season’s 32-7 team that made it all the way to the Final Four. Kentucky brings back Ashton Hagans as the lone starter, with role players Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery, and Nick Richards (who is likely unavailable due to an ankle) in response. I should also mention Nate Sestina, because he is a returning starter from Bucknell and has a great deal of college basketball experience, even if not at UK.

On paper, you have to figure MSU is favored, because their team contains more seasoned players, especially in the starting lineup. Winston is a senior point guard, Tillman a junior forward, and Henry a sophomore wing.

The prime-time matchup is obviously Hagans vs. Winston, which pits the 3rd best assist rate from last season’s Division I teams against one of the best overall defenders (65th in steals) in college basketball.

Unlike last season when Duke drubbed Kentucky’s lifeless corpse in this game, the Wildcats look far better prepared to face a highly-ranked but favored team. From a guard standpoint, Kentucky is doubtless one of the best and could be the outright best top to bottom. Without Richards available, the front line will be thin, but there are plenty of players who can man several positions outside the bigs, and that may be good enough if the guards play well.

But make no mistake -- if Kentucky wins, it will most likely be because of guard play. Senior starter Josh Langford is out for Sparty, and that leaves MSU rather young, but still talented, in the back court. The Wildcats should be able to exploit that.

So far this season against vastly inferior competition, Kentucky’s back court has shown excellent poise and a willingness to share the ball. The freshman wings have been active if not outstanding, and the front-court bigs have been a mixed bag. If that form holds, look for a close basketball game that could go either way. If the guards are off their game or the moment is too big for them, Kentucky could lose by double-digits.

Things to watch for:

  • Turnovers — Kentucky needs to win this stat.
  • Rebounding — ‘Cats need to keep it close.
  • 3-point shooting — Gotta stay above 33%.
  • Strategy — Keep Winston on the perimeter
  • Strategy — Run, run, run.
  • Intangibles — Keep smilin’, don’t panic.

Go, ‘Cats!

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