UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky wins, Michigan State loses. Their paths forward look vastly different.

Tyrese Maxey (3) and Nick Richards (4) were both major contributors to No. 2 Kentucky’s win over No. 1 Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. Maxey led all scorers with 26 points. Richards, who played the role of interior disruptor on defense, finished with seven points and four rebounds.
Tyrese Maxey (3) and Nick Richards (4) were both major contributors to No. 2 Kentucky’s win over No. 1 Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. Maxey led all scorers with 26 points. Richards, who played the role of interior disruptor on defense, finished with seven points and four rebounds. Alex Slitz

In more ways than one, Kentucky and Michigan State will go their separate ways after their game Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

The eight games in the next six weeks of UK’s schedule include four opponents picked by Blue Ribbon yearbook to finish ninth or 10th in their leagues: Eastern Kentucky in the Ohio Valley, Evansville in the Missouri Valley, UAB in Conference USA and Georgia Tech in the Atlantic Coast. Only Lamar — picked third in the Southland Conference — is projected finishing somewhere in the top three spots of its league.

Meanwhile, Michigan State’s next 11 opponents include two teams picked to win their leagues: Duke in the ACC and Kansas in the Big 12 if the Maui Invitational breaks down that way. Another opponent is picked to finish second (Seton Hall in the Big East) and two more third: Dayton in the Atlantic 10 and Charleston Southern in the Big South.

After No. 2 Kentucky beat No. 1 Michigan State 69-62, John Calipari expressed thanks that another team like the Spartans won’t test his Cats anytime soon.

Calipari said the schedule allows him to get playing time for such freshmen as Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks. “Can you imagine their first game out of the boat (being in Madison Square Garden against the No. 1-ranked team)?” he asked.

Calipari suggested that UK’s schedule offers other benefits.

“How about we play different lineups where we play a smaller lineup?” he said. “(The schedule) gives me a chance to get all these kids to play and figure out (how different players can contribute).”

Calipari also spoke of needing to develop all the players, not just the starters.

“So how I do that is in these other games,” he said.

Chance to learn

ESPN analysts Jay Bilas and Seth Greenberg also spoke of Kentucky’s relatively less-challenging schedule as an opportunity to learn.

This kind of schedule “can get them a little more confident, and develop their ego,” Bilas said. “You don’t need to run a gauntlet.”

A team with older players can run a gauntlet because those players can better handle defeat, Bilas said. “You know it’s not the end of the road.”

whitney.jpg
UK’s pre-conference schedule will provide freshmen like Kahlil Whitney (2) time to develop. “Where Kahlil is now and the end of the season, it’s going to be two totally different players,” ESPN’s Seth Greenberg said. Alex Slitz Alex Slitz

Greenberg said UK’s schedule will enable Calipari to test possible ways to use graduate transfer Nate Sestina in the more challenging games of January and February. The ESPN analyst also saw the immediate schedule ahead as a time for Whitney to develop further as a player.

“Where Kahlil is now and the end of the season, it’s going to be two totally different players,” Greenberg said.

Another ESPN analyst, LaPhonso Ellis, said that Calipari can further gauge Kentucky’s ability to shoot from the perimeter and the way the big men can contribute in the next several weeks.

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Izzo: ‘It helps me’

The ESPN analysts suggested that Michigan State’s approach has benefits, too. One benefit comes with being humbled by a strong opponent.

Of recruits who were Parade and/or McDonald’s All-Americans, Ellis said, “We think we know everything. So it takes a little while to get thumped a couple times for us to realize the coaches know (what they’re talking about).”

hagans.jpg
Sophomore guard Ashton Hagans had 11 points, three assists, two rebounds and a steal Tuesday night. Alex Slitz Alex Slitz

Of course, there can be too much of this good thing.

“It does help you if your team thinks they’re better than they are,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said of his scheduling philosophy. “That ends quick. And if you win some of the games, maybe you get a better idea of where you are and where you could be.

“Every once in a while, I’ve bitten off more than I could chew.”

Izzo said that the 2019-20 schedule could be an example of that.

“I still think at the end, it helps me more than it hurts me,” he said.

Too many so-called cupcake opponents can also be a problem.

“I don’t know any good player who ever said, ‘Yeah, I want to play in meaningless games,’” Bilas said. “‘Line up a bunch of meaningless games. It’s really fun.’

“They want to play big games.”

Bilas added that a freshman-dependent team such as Kentucky can be overwhelmed by a challenging schedule. “There’s not one way,” he said.

Next game

Eastern Kentucky at No. 2 Kentucky

When: 7 p.m. Friday

TV: SEC Network

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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