No. 1 Kentucky basketball faces No. 2 Michigan St.

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 11, 2013 

When talking about Tuesday's Kentucky-Michigan State game, coaches John Calipari and Tom Izzo downplayed the big-picture significance of the first No. 1-versus-No. 2 showdown in five years.

To borrow from Calipari, it's not fair to draw big conclusions from any game this early in a season.

Little conclusions? That is fair.

"Questions are answered," Calipari said in neatly summing up the much-anticipated (and well-named) Champions Classic. UK plays Michigan State, then Duke plays Kansas. All four programs have won national championships in the last 14 years.

Never mind life and death. And the new officiating rules presumably throw out the chance for assault and battery.

It's about live and learn or trial and error, perhaps even more than it's about Kentucky's abundance of precocious talent against State's savvy/gritty veterans.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Calipari emphasized the chance to learn about his team, which relies on a freshman core that includes a record six McDonald's All-Americans. How well the Cats play as a unit (the game's at the, ahem, United Center)? How hard will the Cats play? How will the Cats handle adversity and prosperity?

"You can't learn against Popcorn State," Calipari said without mentioning by name UK's warm-up opponents UNC Asheville and Northern Kentucky.

Izzo said much the same thing. Of any coach's need to get through to his players, he said, "You're always going to get somebody's attention more often after a loss than a win."

Of course, one team will win. One team will lose. "This time of year means nothing," Izzo said.

Both coaches spoke of the challenges presented.

Izzo noted UK's size, starting with Julius Randle, who is off to the best start, statistically speaking, of any of Calipari's many star freshmen.

"Chris Webber body, but he has ball-handling skills," the Michigan State coach said of Randle. "So we haven't seen that."

Calipari all but predicted that Michigan State will try to make someone other than Randle lead Kentucky.

"They will know how to take him away," the UK coach said. "They are going to double team him and they are going to be really physical. They are going to sag and make him take jumpers."

Calipari suggested the onus may shift to guards James Young and Aaron Harrison, who shot a combined two of 11 from three-point range against Northern Kentucky.

"That can't happen, not in this game," Calipari said. "They (Michigan State) won't go two-for-11. So at least you have to match them."

Calipari noted how Young (one of six) has "the ultimate green light" to shoot. To hesitate is to lose.

"No reason to press," Calipari said. "You've already established who you are as a player. You don't have to play great every night out, just about every third night out. ... If you don't shoot open shots I take you out of the game. I think he's the best shooter in the country. Now you have to go in games and do it."

Given another freshman-oriented team, Kentucky will not try to out-think Michigan State with a thick playbook. Calipari wished aloud that UK simply execute its limited repertoire. "Which isn't much," he said.

Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein echoed the sentiment.

"I think if we do what we do and we're good at doing what we do, it'll be hard for teams to play with us," Randle said. "If we play our game, I think our team will be fine."

Cauley-Stein acknowledged Kentucky's limited playbook.

"We don't have a lot to throw at them," he said. "So we just have to polish what we know and just run with it. It's all about how we play as a unit and play hard. That's all we can do is play hard and try to finesse something."

Izzo stressed transition defense, rebounding and how tightly the referees call the action.

"The bottom line is we have to keep our damn feet in front of them without fouling," he said. "And then when the ball goes up, there better be five of our guys going for it."

Izzo downplayed the talent-versus-experience angle, although he conceded that Kentucky has plenty of talent.

"There's probably a ton of NBA teams that don't have seven first-round picks on their team," he said. "Think about it."

But he reminded reporters that Kentucky is not just pure talent unleashed on opponents. Nor is Michigan State merely a collection of experienced players.

Tweaking Calipari for his out-sized Madness declaration of grandeur, Izzo said, "Maybe we're not college basketball. But we're a pretty good team that looks forward to the challenge."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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