The ritual is back!
Sitting on my bed, trying to write the intro for this article and chills that feel like boa constrictors are wrapping themselves around me. Somehow, I think I’m smiling wider than Tyrese Maxey. We still have two more hours, guys!
Other than the fact that Champions Classic victories are addicting for me, I’m awake because there’s a Swaggiest Cal Ever interview and a Matt Jones postgame show on the way. It’s how I’ve spent my childhood. I can’t fall asleep on a game night until “Werewolves of London” fades into the blackness of my bedroom.
Alright. For the player takeaways, I’m going to start ranking the performances, assigning a Crunch Time five-man lineup and having the takeaways operate like an Associated Press Poll, with players vacillating up and down depending on their performances. Let’s start with the best player in college basketball.
Tyrese Maxey: Per Dickie V, “OH MR. CALIPARI YOU HAVE A STAR. AN S-T-A-R!”
In two gifs, I can tell you the story of College Basketball’s one-versus-two 2019-20 debut.
If that doesn’t give you chills, you aren’t a living, breathing Kentucky Basketball fan. Maxey’s remake of the Davis THIS IS MY STATE finger-wag punctuated his arrival to the AD Shrine of Legendary One-and-Done’s—in his first game!
As an avid college basketball fan and addicted reader of stereotypical CBB analysis, Michigan State senior point guard Cassius Winston was an offseason protagonist. A unanimous preseason Player of the Year by the AP’s vote, and deserved. Winston dismantled Zion Williamson’s and RJ Barrett’s Duke team, and he’s a 5’11 career backup at best in the NBA. The dude is a bonafide top-three player in the country. Maxey was better.
On twitter, PJ Washington called him “special,” and Draymond Green chimed in, conceding “Maxey is tough though” after the MSG stage-owner finished off Green’s experience-laden Spartans.
No tweets of that nature from NBA guys talking about Cassius Winston or Tre Jones or Devon Dotson...ever! Even with 21 points and 4 assists, Winston was a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas...while Maxey established himself as one of the five best players in college basketball. It couldn’t be more obvious after Tuesday night.
Future lottery pick in the NBA Draft and go-to crunch-time scorer. His offensive arsenal is beyond extraordinary and he just turned 19. In the open court, Maxey looks as fast as No. 1 on the football field except he can finish floaters over seven-footers. Oh, and he catapulted and connected on a 35-foot bomb to bury the preseason number one with a minute to play.
I could unleash probably 3,000 words on Tyrese. But life is long and Tyrese’s basketball-playing will be a staple of mine over the next ten years, so I’ll save some for later. I hope Ty does too.
Ashton Hagans: A “pit bull”
“We threw the pit bull at him,” Maxey bragged of his backcourt mate Ashton Hagans and his defense on Winston. Defensive menaces that can handle the ball and make mid-range jumpers are a wonderful delicacy.
Oh, that dude’s the best player in the country? Just throw Ashton on him.
Cassius wound up with 21 and 4 but the senior table-setter was flustered all night with Hagans’ edge and double teams from our bigs off the same ball screens he used to butcher defenses last season.
Offensively, Hagans still can’t finish at the rim with any consistency. “Shai would’ve made that” was a comment my roommate threw out there several times. Other than the botched bunnies at the rim, Hagans was excellent, pacing the half-court with direction rather than unsteadiness and finding the right pass or rotation. Loved what I saw from him.
Immanuel Quickley: Everything I want in a third guard
IQ splashed a couple threes, swished several free throws and played defense on par with Hagans. He finished with an even 10—and that’s what I hope is an average number for no. 5. I think he can jump his average up to about 12 or 14 with 37-40% three-point shooting. And that would be fantastic.
The reality is Kentucky has three guards with similar base skillsets: Competitive athletic defenders who can each create their own offense but in varying methods. Maxey can chuck it from the logo, Ashton is implementing some Ulis-esque mid-range and floater ability and Immanuel looks the part of our most consistent catch-and-shoot deep threat (sans Sestina).
Plus, he looks more creative attacking the basket, which I’m sure is a matter of increased confidence personally and from the coaching staff. He doesn’t need to be Maxey, because, well, only Maxey is Maxey.
Nick Richards is my favorite kid on the team
When I see Nick Richards catch the ball at the free throw line, take two steps and slam-dunk on the head-banded head of the preseason POY, I feel great emotion. He shows us a smile, and it was my favorite moment of the night.
Nick works hard, does not complain and is always a positive, gentle presence off the court. Now, I think he’s getting it on the court. He’s starting to get that he can block every shot and he can perform a euro-step dunk and that each and every rebound not only can be his but WILL be his.
There’s so much to like from what Nick has shown so far this season, and he battled through the game with an injured ankle. Quite a warrior.
Nate Sestina: Rice
On Mexican dishes, I love rice. With correct seasoning or sauce, it’s good enough to eat alone and perfect in a complimentary role. Like bringing James Harden off the bench in the 2012 Finals. Rice to go with the steak, cheese and salsa? Are you kidding me, of course! Every Mexican dish is better with rice.
Every Kentucky lineup is better with Big Nate Sestina. He’s got the works: threes, baby-hooks, rebounding, loose-ball chasing, sturdy defense, vocal leadership and any other “glue guy” stuff like we mentioned the other day.
The stretch that has Kentucky basketball coverers tickled is the two-possession stint where Sestina handled a Spartan big defensively, corralled the rebound, passed it off, sprinted down and hit a spot-up three a few steps behind the arc to push Kentucky’s lead to 13.
Pretty big stuff, quite frankly.
I swear it’s the same elements of Reid Travis, just in a different avatar. Knowing how not to mess up is so crucial in elite-calibre games like the Champions Classic matchups. Until Brooks or Whitney grow more comfortable, I think Sestina’s minutes should huddle around 25 or so.
But, there are a lot of bodies this year at the 2-3-4 positions, and seeing how Calipari divvies them up will be more interesting for Kentucky fans than monitoring the AP Poll.