Michigan State will provide a sober assessment of Kentucky’s team at this early juncture of the season. And it won’t take long for judgments to be made.
“You’ll probably in the first five to seven minutes go, ‘Oh, they can play with these guys,’” UK Coach John Calipari said Monday. “Or you’ll go, ‘Those dudes are men. Our guys are going to be OK, but right now they’re not up to this.’”
“This” is Kentucky’s game against Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday in New York.
Michigan State, which is ranked No. 12, might expose Kentucky’s youth and inexperience. “They may be beyond us right now,” Calipari said. “We’ll find out.”
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Or Kentucky can stand up to State Coach Tom Izzo’s signature dependence on toughness and post a beware-of-Cats sign on the college basketball fence.
Calipari claimed not to know whether Kentucky will pass or fail this early pop (in the face) quiz.
“I have no idea,” he said of his freshman-dependent players. “They may pee down their legs.”
Calipari likened the big stage of Madison Square Garden and being part of a marquee doubleheader (Kansas plays Duke in the second game) to a presidential debate. Many eyes will be watching.
Calipari dismissed the notion of talent being the sole means of separating winners from losers. Kentucky might have more talent than Michigan State.
“We’ve got good players,” Calipari said. “That’s not what wins.”
What does win, he said, was “the grind, the toughness, the grittiness, setting good screens. All the little things. The offensive rebound attempts. ‘I’m not getting beat to a ball.’”
Calipari returned again and again to two ways to determine how UK measures up: Rebounding and defense (especially in transition).
In terms of fast-break points, Kentucky’s transition defense was nearly perfect in last weekend’s two opening games. UK gave up only two fast-break points in its victories over Stephen F. Austin and Canisius. SFA’s Leon Gilmore dunked in transition with 11:46 left in the second half. The dunk reduced UK’s lead to 67-48.
Those first five minutes against Michigan State might be telling. “Because they’re going to fly,” Calipari said.
As for rebounding, Canisius and Stephen F. Austin each had 14 offensive rebounds. The most offensive rebounds Kentucky has given up on average in Calipari’s time as coach is 12.8 in 2009-10.
Canisius and SFA averaged 11.9 offensive rebounds last season, although Kentucky’s pace of play is a factor in the higher number against the Cats.
Michigan State will play physically. “They absolutely jam you in the back and they’re coming,” Calipari said. “There’s no, ‘Let me try to get around you.’ It’s mush-mouth around that goal, and they go for balls.”
In an opening 65-63 loss to Arizona, Michigan State only held its own on the boards. The teams tied with 34 rebounds each. Both grabbed 12 offensive rebounds.
That was then. This is now for both Kentucky and Michigan State. The big stage.
“How do you do now?” Calipari said of this high-pressure atmosphere. “Can you make a shot? Can you make a free throw? This is a great environment for that to find out early.”
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo emphasized limiting turnovers and taking good shots as keys for his team.
“Because they can take the ball from one end to the other better than any Kentucky team we’ve played,” he said.
In the victories over Stephen F. Austin and Canisius, UK totaled 61 points off turnovers and outscored the opponents 26-2 in fast-break points.
Izzo all but mimicked Calipari’s concern about standing up to an opponent.
“I think this will be one of the best teams we’ve played in years,” he said of Kentucky, “and I’m anxious to see how we compete.”
Calipari predicted that Michigan State will sag its defense into the lane in hopes of cutting off driving lanes and inviting Kentucky to shoot jump shots.
Izzo made that sound accurate.
“Kentucky has struggled to shoot the ball from the perimeter,” he said, “and that’s why they are just driving, driving, driving it and getting to the free throw line.”
Kentucky shot 69 free throws in the season’s first two games.
A sagging defense would be better suited to keeping Isaiah Briscoe from the rim.
“They go to the free throw line somewhere between 34 and 35 times per game, which is almost a joke,” Izzo said.
‘It’s real simple’
Calipari drew a direct correlation between Derek Willis’ playing time and the quality of his defense and volume of his rebounding.
“If he defends, he can stay in the game,” Calipari said. “If he can’t defend and he makes three shots, he probably won’t play much this game.
“You’ve got to guard, man. You’ve got to rebound. It’s real simple.”
Willis got beat twice early against Canisius. He came out of the game when UK called timeout trailing 9-2 with 16:43 left in the first half.
“It isn’t anything to do with what he does offensively,” Calipari said. “I know what he can do offensively. We all do.”
Calipari cited several areas where Willis’ defense lapses: Losing focus, not moving his feet, retreating. “Most of it is communicate,” the UK coach said. “If you don’t talk, we don’t know what you’re doing. ...
“He’s trying his butt off. But now results matter in this thing.”
Michigan State is following Izzo’s scheduling philosophy of anyone, anytime, anywhere. The Spartans will travel 13,614 miles in November. That counts games against Arizona in Hawaii, UK in New York, at Duke and an appearance in the Battle4Atlantis in the Bahamas.
UK will travel about 15,150 miles all season.
Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale will call the game for ESPN.
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 13 Michigan State
What: Champions Classic
Where: Madison Square Garden in New York
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 2-0, Michigan State 0-1
Series: Kentucky leads 12-11
Last meeting: Michigan State won 78-74 on Nov. 12, 2013, at the Champions Classic in Chicago.