John Clay

Parity may rule college basketball, but only one team has the Marvelous Tyrese Maxey

Say hello to the Marvelous Tyrese Maxey.

We had heard about Mr. Maxey. The smile. The personality. The engaging game of the terrific Texan, the 6-foot-3 guard who was the highest-rated recruit of yet another top-shelf Kentucky recruiting class, No. 10 in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index.

Watching his dazzling debut Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, the spark that ignited Kentucky’s 69-62 spanking of the No. 1-ranked Michigan State Spartans, you wondered how the Marvelous Tyrese Maxey wasn’t No. 1.

“It was fun,” said Maxey afterward, flashing that winning smile.

Guess so. Talk about a Broadway smash, Maxey scored 26 points, the most by a UK player in his college debut under head coach John Calipari. He was 7-of-12 from the floor, including 3-of-7 from (newly extended) three-point range and a cool 9-of-10 from the foul line in front of 19,821 at The Gaaa-den.

Michigan State led just 38 seconds the entire night, but when Sparty pulled within two points at 62-60 with 1:27 left, Maxey hit the biggest shot of the night, a cold-blooded three-pointer from the left wing with 59 seconds left that extended the lead to five and, barring a shocking stumble, lifted the Cats to the probable top spot in the next AP college basketball poll.

We can debate whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. If you don’t think this is too early on the calendar for college basketball, you must have missed Kansas committing 28 turnovers in its 68-66 loss to Duke in Tuesday night’s first game, and the foul-infested drag-a-thon that was the first half of UK-Michigan State.

The second half was a needed cut above, however. Cassius Winston, Tom Izzo’s savvy senior point guard and preseason National Player of the Year favorite, grabbed his Spartans by the scruff of the neck and pulled them out of their first-half doldrums — 29.6 percent shooting — and into the game. Yet every time State appeared ready to stick a neck in front, there was the Marvelous Tyrese Maxey.

His three-pointer at the 14:10 mark put UK up 42-36. His driving floater from the left baseline with 5:49 left made it 58-53 Cats. Another driving bucket from the left baseline with 2:23 left made it 62-56 Kentucky. Last but not least was the aforementioned and fearless dagger of a triple.

Tyrese Maxey finished his first game as a Wildcat with 26 points, five rebounds, one assist and one steal in 32 minutes off the bench. Alex Slitz

Bottom line: This kid makes things go. Though he did not start — “I wanted him to watch things and come out firing,” Calipari said — the Cats were just a different team with Maxey on the floor. And that doesn’t mean that veteran guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley were off the floor. Hagans and Quickley were both major contributors. There were long stretches when all three were on the floor at the same time, especially late when Calipari smartly kept his best ball-handlers in the game.

We should not ignore Nate Sestina. The grad transfer from Bucknell also made a successful UK debut with seven points and six rebounds. He spent more time on the floor (31:27) than any other Cat. And it was a pretty Sestina three-pointer from the top of the key with 9:58 left that caused an annoyed Izzo to quickly call a timeout.

This would be a good time for another timeout. Being blitzed by Duke in last year’s Champions Classic did not mean Kentucky was a bad team. Beating the preseason No. 1 in this year’s Champions Classic does not mean Kentucky is a great team. Not yet. Calipari stated afterward his next goal is to develop a couple of more scorers. There are other goals to mark off his legal pad.

Before the showcase of a night, ESPN analyst LaPhonso Ellis predicted rampant parity for college basketball this year. Ellis said he sees a dozen teams that could win the title. And despite Tuesday’s tumble, Michigan State is on that list, especially if shooting guard Josh Langford returns from his foot problems.

Only one of those teams, however, has Tyrese Maxey, who for one night on a big public stage in the heart of the Big Apple, was simply marvelous.


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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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