One year ago, then-No. 2 Kentucky opened the college basketball season in a marquee matchup against then-No. 4 Duke in the Champions Classic at Indianapolis. Duke slammed the Wildcats, 118-84.
Fast forward one year and Kentucky again finds itself ranked No. 2 and in the same Champions Classic in a celebrated tipoff to a new season. Only this time, No. 1 Michigan State awaits on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Different opponent, same result?
“This is so early in the season, I can’t predict what goes on,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters Sunday. “But I wish we didn’t play this game the first game of the year. I’ve said it before. Why don’t we have a couple of games under our belt before we do this? But, you know, everybody agreed to do it.
“I’m anxious to see really where we are right now. I expect our guys to be anxious. I don’t know what will happen with the young kids. You just don’t. You can’t predict it.”
Last year, Duke rolled with a host of talented freshmen, including future NBA No. 1 pick Zion Williamson. This time, Michigan State is led by a player who concerns Calipari, senior point guard Cassius Winston, who averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 assists last season.
“Their veteran quarterback makes them go,” Calipari said. “He’s a good player. Plays with great pace. Plays with patience. Knows what he does well. And he’ll play for all 40 minutes. You’re not going to take him out.”
The matchup of the night will be Winston, odds-on favorite for national player of the year, versus Kentucky sophomore Ashton Hagans, co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference last season.
“If you’re trying to keep (Winston) from scoring, you’re going to foul,” Calipari predicted. “What you’re trying to do is if the kid gets 25, just make them a hard 25.”
Both teams have been hit by the injury bug before the season even starts.
On Oct. 22, the Spartans lost 6-foot-5 shooting guard Joshua Langford until at least January with recurring foot and ankle problems. The former McDonald’s All-American originally hurt the foot last year and missed the final three months of the season.
Additionally, 6-6 forward Kyle Ahrens is nursing a high ankle sprain, but he will be ready to go Tuesday.
In terms of how many minutes Ahrens will get, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, “I’m gonna manage it by talking to Kyle, how he feels and how he plays.”
The Spartans also will be without forward Joey Hauser, a transfer from Marquette. Michigan State is awaiting an NCAA ruling regarding Hauser’s eligibility for this season.
“Everybody’s gotta step up,” Izzo said. “Coaches gotta step up. Players gotta step up. The rookies gotta step up. But what an opportunity for people. You’re going to play on some of the biggest stages and you’ve got the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Izzo added of his squad, “We have weird injuries. … I’ve watched other teams go through injuries. I’m not practicing different. I mean, we’re going to use our heads on what we gotta do, but I’m really going to use the player and the trainers (input) on what I do.”
Kentucky big man Nick Richards sustained a sprained ankle in an Oct. 27 exhibition, leaving his availability for Tuesday uncertain.
“It’s still day-to-day,” Calipari said Sunday. “We’ll see if he can give us a little practice time today, but probably nothing live and see what he can do tomorrow. If he’s timid with it, he shouldn’t play. Not in this game. We’ll just have to see.”
–Field Level Media