Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over No. 1 Michigan State

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 69-62 win over Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday:

1. Tyrese Maxey was marvelous

On the biggest of stages, against No. 1 ranked Michigan State in Madison Square Garden, the 6-foot-3 freshman from Garland, Texas, was the difference in the No. 2 Cats knocking off the No. 1 Spartans to mark the official start of the college basketball season.

Maxey came off the bench to score 26 points, the most ever for a Wildcat in his college debut under John Calipari. Maxey was 7-for-12 from the floor, 3-of-7 from the three-point line and 9-of-10 from the foul line. He also grabbed five rebounds, including a couple of key boards late.

Maxey scored 11 points in the first half as UK led 34-24 at the break. When Michigan State crept back to within three points at 39-36, Maxey buried a three-pointer from the left wing with 14:10 left. Later, with 6:50 remaining, his driving bucket off the right wing stopped a 7-0 Michigan State run and extended the Cats’ cushion back to 56-48.

Finally, when Michigan State pulled to within two points when senior guard Cassius Winston produced an old-fashioned three-point play, Maxey drained a triple from the left wing to push the Kentucky lead back out to 65-60 with 59 seconds left. And that was pretty much the ball game.

“It was fun,” said Maxey, who celebrated a birthday on Monday.

Almost as impressive was the way that Maxey and fellow guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley played together. Afterward, Calipari credited Hagans’ defense in practice with making Maxey better. And Quickley scored 10 points himself. Not a bad trio.

2. Now Kentucky will be No. 1 in the polls

That’s if the Cats don’t slip up against Eastern Kentucky come Friday night in Rupp Arena. Providing Calipari’s club takes care of the Colonels, UK will be at the top of the AP college basketball poll on Monday.

Does that matter? Not really. Not this early. Calipari said his young team has plenty of things to work on. The coach said he needs to find a couple of more scorers. Freshman Keion Brooks played 14 minutes without any points. Freshman Kahlil Whitney scored four points in 22 minutes.

“I love that we shot 39 percent and won. Those are my kind of games,” said Calipari, but he added that he wants to see more offense from his team, that EJ Montgomery was hurt in the second half and Hagans played much of the game with a leg injury.

“He’s a tough kid,” said Calipari.

Despite the loss, Michigan State is a tough team. Winston finished with 21 points and four assists. If Tom Izzo gets shooting guard Josh Langford back in January, the Spartans will be right back in the national championship conversation. One loss, in early, early November, is not going to change that.

“It would be great if we played them again late, late, late,” Calipari said. “Like final two.”

3. Is the Champions Classic too early?

Tuesday’s first game was a choppy, sloppy affair with No. 4 Duke knocking off No. 3 Kansas 68-66. The losers committed a ridiculous 28 turnovers. The winners shot all of 35.9 percent from the floor.

Kentucky-Michigan State wasn’t all that much more pleasing to watch from a technical standpoint. The two teams combined to commit 43 fouls. UK won the game by shooting 38 percent. Michigan State shot 29.6 percent the first half and 39.3 for the game.

Is Nov. 5 too early?

Calipari said he grabbed ESPN’s Norby Williamson and made the argument that the Champions Classic should be pushed back a week or so that all four teams can get a couple of games under their belt first. By the way Calipari talked, it didn’t sound like Williamson was agreeable to the idea.

Meanwhile, Cal used the postgame press conference in front of national writers to lobby for his idea of having a week of college basketball in August, a sort of “spring practice” he called it with teams playing exhibitions against other teams. Cal’s argument that there is not much sports-wise going on in August. Now, with college and pro football in full swing, and the NBA starting, college basketball gets swallowed up.

It’s doubtful that an August start is going to happen anytime soon, and the second half of Kentucky-Michigan State contained some entertaining basketball. We should be glad that college basketball is back. There’s plenty of time to smooth out the rough edges.

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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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