When the closing seconds ticked off the clock at last year’s Champions Classic in Indianapolis, Big Blue Nation was in shock as the Duke Blue Devils rolled over the Kentucky Wildcats in a highly anticipated showdown.
It felt like the Cats didn’t belong on the floor with the Devils after the 37 point drubbing. But as the season progressed, fans left that game in the rearview mirror. That team finished the season in the Elite Eight: the exact same way that Duke ended the season.
Tuesday night’s feeling was completely different as the Cats bested the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, the Michigan State Spartans. Sparty is the odds on favorite to win the title. and point guard Cassius Winston was the man to beat for Player of the Year.
But it was Kentucky who won 69-62. Tyrese Maxey became a star in Madison Square Garden, and Kentucky announced that they will not take a backseat to any college basketball team.
What surprised me the most is the fact that this young UK team physically dominated a much older, and bigger, Spartan team. There were stretches when MSU would close the gap to three points or less. And every time, Kentucky had an answer on offense or defense. That maturity isn’t easy to come by with early season John Calipari teams.
Cal has been preaching toughness and physicality. He got both of those and then some. Defensively, this team is well ahead of schedule. Offensively, they will figure out their roles in the coming weeks and will be even more potent than it was Tuesday.
Now, the Wildcats should be the top team in the land, and that may not change for a long time. The coming weeks are full of cupcakes for the Cats to hone their skills against.
Kahlil Whitney, Johnny Juzang and Keion Brooks will figure out how they fit on this team. EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards will continue to build confidence and toughness.
The future is bright for Kentucky. But just like last season, the Champions Classic is just one game. A lot can happen between now and March.