Through two regular season games, the Kentucky Wildcats have looked impressive, but they will have their first real test on Tuesday as they take on the Michigan State Spartans in the Champions Classic.
This season the Spartans don’t have the usual ranking by their name, but don’t be fooled as they were ranked just outside the preseason Top 25.
Currently with a 1-1 record, Michigan State just faced off against No. 2 Gonzaga, and should have won. The Spartans played an excellent defensive game, forcing 18 turnovers and holding the Bulldogs to just 42 percent from the field and and 22 percent from three. Yet, they were ultimately done in by foul trouble and a cold-shooting second half (5-for-20).
Following the game, Spartans guard A.J. Hoggard said, “I learned that we can play with anybody in the country.”
We will find out if that is true on Tuesday. Let’s look at some things to watch for.
Will Kentucky be at full strength?
One of the biggest storylines for the Kentucky this season, is that they have yet to be at full strength.
After missing the season opener, Sahvir Wheeler made his debut and did so in impressive fashion. Coming off the bench, the senior guard finished with a double-double scoring 11 points and adding 11 assists and 2 steals.
Damion Collins is also expected to be available. However, that still leaves the reigning National Player of the Year, Oscar Tshiebwe. Will he be ready for Michigan State on Tuesday?
“I don’t know yet,” Calipari said following the Duquesne game.
“He’s ahead of schedule, but you know, you’ve got to be able to stop and turn... So we’ll have to see.”
Tshiebwe is officially listed as day-to-day per the injury report and has begun to participate in non-contact drills in practice, so it is possible that Tshiebwe could make his much-anticipated return in Tuesday’s Champions Classic.
Can Kentucky use their depth?
Even without Tshiebwe, Kentucky has 10 players that can impact a game. Whereas, for Michigan State depth is a weakness.
Against Gonzaga, the Spartans played just 5 players more than 20 minutes. However, due to foul trouble, Izzo was forced to play nine players. Of those who played, there were just 4 players that scored more than five points.
In comparison, Kentucky is still without two key players (Collins, Tshiebwe), but has still played nine players in real game time, with eight of them more than 20 minutes. The exception, Adou Thiero, who played 14 minutes against Howard.
Of those nine players, seven of them are averaging more than 5 points, including five who are averaging double-digits. As a whole, Kentucky is averaging 35 points from the bench.
Don’t expect Calipari to continue playing nine or ten guys, but the Wildcats have players that can step up if called upon.
How does the offense play against a top defense?
The Kentucky offense has been very impressive thus far, averaging 86 points per contest, while shooting over 50 percent from the field and from three. Yes, from three.
As a team, Kentucky is shooting just over 51 percent from three, which ranks 9th in the country and is the highest of any power five school. This also isn’t due to a lack at attempts, as they have shot 43 (hitting 22 of them), which is ranked top 20 in the country.
The surprising part of this has been that Kentucky has displayed an explosive offense 3rd in efficiency (KenPom) without much of an offensive paint threat. Which will change when Tshiebwe returns.
Michigan State, who has the 26th most efficient defense does pose a greater challenge than the two teams that Kentucky has played thus far, who both are 200 or worst.
With that said, don’t expect Kentucky to have the same level of efficiency, but it will be interesting to what the offense looks like against a top defense.
Kentucky Wildcats Basketball vs. Michigan State Spartans
Time/Date: 7 pm ET, November 15th
Location: Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
TV Channel: ESPN
Online Stream: SlingTV
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens will have the UK radio network call on WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1, and the UK Sports Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and SEC Network (check local listings).
Rosters: UK | MSU
Stats To Know: UK | MSU
Team Sheets: UK | MSU
Odds: Kentucky is a 6-point favorite via DraftKings Sportsbook with an over/under of 141.5. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives the Wildcats a 76.6% chance of winning, and Bart Torvik has it at 60%. KenPom is at 77%.
Predictions: Bart Torvik went with a 73-70 margin for the Cats to pull out the win, while KenPom went with 74-66 victory, Kentucky!