John Clay

UK doesn’t look ready for Michigan State, but it’s never too early for surprises

Kentucky isn’t ready for its opener Tuesday night.

But maybe Michigan State isn’t either.

It’s (very) early November, after all, way too early to be starting college basketball. College football is just now getting to its good stuff. The NFL season is only halfway over. The NBA regular season is not even 3 weeks old. And yet college hoops is trying to elbow its way onto a very busy calendar.

It was the same thing last year when UK played Duke on Nov. 6 in the Champions Classic. We know how that turned out. The Landslide at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. John Calipari’s club even had a string of games in the Bahamas, as well as a pair of exhibition outings, to prepare for the Blue Devils. Didn’t help. Duke 118, Kentucky 84.

Now here we are again. The No. 2 Wildcats versus the No. 1 Spartans at Madison Square Garden in New York. No Bahamas this year, just those two practice games, the first an 80-53 win over Georgetown last Sunday, the second an 83-51 victory over Kentucky State on Friday night.

In neither game did the Cats look ready for the challenge in New York City. Georgetown, defending NAIA champs, outrebounded UK in the first game, causing Calipari to lament about his team’s lack of toughness. Making that a point of emphasis in preparation for Kentucky State, UK appeared a bit improved in those areas on Friday, but there was never a point where you thought the Cats were just dominating.

That stands to reason. As usual, Calipari is trying to fit very talented pieces together. There are the freshman guards, Tyrese Maxey and Johnny Juzang, to go with sophomores Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. There are the freshmen wings in Keion Brooks and Kahlil Whitney to go with grad transfer Nate Sestina. And there is sophomore EJ Montgomery and junior Nick Richards underneath.

Oops, there might not be Richards underneath. The 6-foot-11 center injured his ankle early in the second half against Georgetown and sat the bench, his foot in a boot, on Friday. He’s listed as day-to-day. Tuesday might be his day to play, it might not.

If Richards can’t go, it would behoove the Cats to get Montgomery going. The 6-10 Florida native managed five points and five rebounds in 23 minutes against Georgetown. Against Kentucky State, he finished with eight points and four boards in 26 minutes.

“I think EJ is trying to figure things out, just like a lot of the guys are” said UK assistant Joel Justus, who pinch-hit for an under-the-weather Calipari in the postgame press conference. “So I think that’s a process.”

That process needs to accelerate. We all know Michigan State. We all know Tom Izzo, the Michigan State coach. The Spartans like to play a physical, hard-nosed brand of basketball that relies on great defense — “checking” as Izzo calls it — and rebounding.

No different this year. Yes, the Spartans’ star is senior point guard Cassius Winston, the preseason favorite for Player of the Year honors, but Izzo has talented wings in sophomore Aaron Henry and senior Kyle Ahrens (questionable for Tuesday with ankle injury) and a veteran big man in leading rebounder Xavier Tillman, a junior.

Notice the classifications there? Senior. Junior. Sophomore. Even without guard Josh Langford, still nursing a stress fracture in his foot, Izzo has plenty of older players off last year’s 32-win Final Four team. The Spartans are not without flaws, but they do have depth and experience.

That’s why I don’t think Kentucky is quite ready for Tuesday night. The quality of the opposition will no doubt lift the Cats’ intensity and probably their level of play, but based on what we saw in Kentucky’s two exhibition games, a Nov. 5 assignment against the nation’s No. 1 team seems like a tough ask.

It’s early, however, too early really, so maybe we’ll be surprised.

Season opener

No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Michigan State

What: State Farm Champions Classic

When: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Madison Square Garden in New York

TV: ESPN

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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