Mark Story

How No. 2 Kentucky and No. 1 Michigan State match up — with a game prediction

How the No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats (0-0) and No. 1 Michigan State Spartans (0-0) match up at each position for their meeting in the State Farm Champions Classic — with a game prediction:

Small forward

After Kahlil Whitney scored no points and grabbed no rebounds in Kentucky’s 80-53 exhibition win over Georgetown College, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound freshman from Chicago hit seven of 13 shots, scored 15 points and collected five boards in UK’s 83-51 exhibition victory over Kentucky State. Whitney was the No. 11-ranked recruit in the class of 2019 according to the 24/7 Sports Composite.

Michigan State redshirt senior Kyle Ahrens (4.7 points, 2.5 rebounds in 2018-19) was projected to be the Spartans’ starter but is questionable vs. UK due to a high ankle sprain. Sophomore Aaron Henry (6.1 points, 3.8 rebounds) drew the nod in MSU’s 85-50 exhibition win over Albion and had four points, six rebounds and three turnovers in 19 minutes. During MSU’s Final Four run last season, the 6-6, 210-pound Henry averaged 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament.

Advantage: Michigan State

Power forward

Kentucky’s Nate Sestina played well in the exhibitions, averaging 12 points and nine rebounds and making 11 of 17 field-goal attempts. The 6-9, 234-pound graduate transfer from Bucknell (15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds last season for the Bison) has faced Michigan State before. In an 82-78 Bucknell loss to MSU in the 2018 NCAA Tournament round of 64, Sestina hit three of four shots and finished with seven points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes as a reserve.

Michigan State’s Thomas Kithier is expected to play vs. Kentucky in spite of suffering a broken nose last week. A 6-8, 230-pound sophomore, Kithier (1.6 points, 1.3 rebounds) appeared in 31 games for the Spartans as a freshman and made 23 of 29 field goals. Kithier had seven points, a team-high 11 rebounds and three assists in the exhibition vs. Albion.

Advantage: Kentucky


If Nick Richards (ankle sprain) is healthy enough to start for Kentucky after sitting out the exhibition win over Kentucky State, then EJ Montgomery would presumably slide back to the four spot. Being counted on to take a major step up in 2019-20 after an uneven freshman season, Montgomery (3.8 points, 4.1 rebounds , 38 total blocked shots) did not set the exhibition games on fire. The 6-10, 228-pound sophomore averaged 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds.

Michigan State junior Xavier Tillman was a major key to MSU earning Tom Izzo’s eighth Final Four trip last season. The 6-8, 245-pound Tillman (10 points, 7.3 rebounds, team-high 65 total blocked shots) averaged 13.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots over State’s final 13 games. He went for 19 points and 9 rebounds in MSU’s 68-67 upset of Duke in the NCAA tourney’s round of eight.

Advantage: Michigan State

Xavier Tillman.JPG
Michigan State post player Xavier Tillman had 19 points and eight rebounds in the Spartans’ 85-50 exhibition victory over Albion. Carlos Osorio AP

Shooting guard

Kentucky freshman Tyrese Maxey was the No. 10-ranked prospect in the class of 2019 in the 24/7 Sports Composite. In UK’s two exhibitions, the 6-3, 198-pound product of Garland, Texas, looked more than capable of living up to his billing — he averaged 10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2.5 steals. Maxey made only one of seven three-point tries, however.

Michigan State’s expected starter, senior Joshua Langford, is out until at least January with a foot injury. In the exhibition game, freshman Mark “Rocket” Watts got the start. A 6-2, 185-pound Detroit product, Watts was ranked No. 39 in the class of 2019 in the 24/7 Sports Composite. He had four points, five rebounds, four assists and missed all five of this three-point tries vs. Albion.

Advantage: Kentucky

Kentucky freshman guard Tyrese Maxey (3) was the No. 10-ranked prospect in the class of 2019 according to the 24/7 Sports Composite Rankings. Alex Slitz

Point guard

Kentucky sophomore Ashton Hagans (7.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.6 steals) is UK’s leading returning scorer from last season’s elite eight team. The 6-3, 198-pound sophomore from Cartersville, Ga., chose not to test the 2019 NBA Draft and returned to UK to refine his offensive skills, especially his jump shot. In Kentucky’s two exhibitions, Hagans averaged 10.5 points, 4 rebounds, 9.5 assists and 3.5 steals but made only two of nine three-point shots.

Michigan State senior Cassius Winston was last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year and an AP First Team All-American. A season ago, the 6-1, 185-pound Detroit product averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 assists and made 39.8% of his three-points shots. Winston had a double-double — 20 points, 10 assists — in the NCAA tourney upset of Duke. In Kentucky’s 69-48 blowout of Michigan State in the 2016-17 Champions Classic, the then-freshman Winston had nine points and two assists.

Advantage: Michigan State

Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston (5) has a realistic chance to become the first player in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball history to finish with over 2,000 career points and 1,000 career assists. The senior from Detroit enters 2019-20 with 1,411 career points and 714 career assists. Mark Cornelison Herald-Leader file photo


Kentucky sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley was UK’s most lethal scorer in the two exhibition games, averaging 15.5 points while hitting 10 of 16 shots. Freshman small forward Keion Brooks had nine points and nine rebounds vs. Kentucky State. Billed as a long-range shooting specialist, freshman wing Johnny Juzang hit three of five three-point shots vs. KSU for nine points.

Michigan State sophomore wing Gabe Brown had 15 points and made four of six treys in last season’s NCAA round of 16 win over LSU. The development of sophomore point guard Foster Loyer is the key to Tom Izzo’s goal of reducing the work load for Cassius Winston. Freshman forward Malik Hall had nine points and four boards in only 14 minutes vs. Albion. Though junior Marcus Bingham stands 6-11, he is best known for his perimeter jumper.

Advantage: Kentucky

Keion Brooks dunks vs KSU.JPG
Kentucky freshman forward Keion Brooks (12) had nine points and nine rebounds in UK’s 83-51 exhibition victory over Kentucky State. Alex Slitz

Intangibles and history

Kentucky is 13-11 all-time vs. Michigan State but is 3-5 vs. the Spartans in the Tom Izzo coaching era. UK Coach John Calipari is 1-1 vs. MSU at Kentucky.

At 3-5, Michigan State is the only school with a losing record in the Champions Classic. Duke has the best record, 5-3, followed by Kansas and Kentucky, each 4-4.

Kentucky is 7-15 all-time vs. teams ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. UK is 2-2 against top-ranked teams in the Calipari era, beating Ohio State in the 2011 NCAA Tournament and Tennessee in Rupp Arena last season while losing twice to Florida during the 2013-14 season.

Advantage: Even

Izzo vs. Kentucky in Rupp.JPG
Michigan State’s coach Tom Izzo reacts after the Spartans took a late lead en route to defeating Kentucky 71-67 in Rupp Arena on Dec. 14, 2002. Frank Anderson Herald-Leader file photo


Michigan State 77, Kentucky 73

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.